American Football: Nuns on the run as Saints go marching on

Faith is central to the city ravaged by hurricane and two Sisters are praying for a super Sunday

Faith is very important to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. It allayed thoughts of moving the franchise away from the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and still fortifies him four and a half years later as the Saints go marching to their first Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts tonight in Miami.

The devout Catholic also knows his faith needs sustenance so it is no surprise that he celebrates Mass before each game and will be joined by two Dominican nuns in his box at Sun Life Stadium.

But the sisters should not be confused with others who attend Saints home games. "There are people, unfortunately, who dress up as nuns," says Sister Mary Andrew, principal at Cathedral Academy, an elementary school in the heart of New Orleans' historic French Quarter, a few blocks from the Superdome.

"Fans always ask when we're walking to the stadium: 'Are you real?' And we'll say: 'Yes, we're real Sisters.' They'll want their pictures taken with us, almost like we're celebrities but we're not. People are usually very respectful to us and very sweet. Every once in a while there's one joker who's maybe had too much to drink."

Sisters Mary Andrew and Mary Rose have been praying hard for the Saints. "We got a blessing on our throats today for the feast of Saint Blaise. The father said it would help us yell and scream at the Super Bowl," adds Sister Mary Andrew, who has been a fan of the team since 1967.

They know what the Saints' success means to a city still recovering from the day the levees broke. "It's brought everybody together, black, white, young, old, rich, poor," says Sister Mary Andrew. "The city of New Orleans is very unique, the people have a great faith here. When Katrina hit [resulting in the Superdome being used as a makeshift shelter and the team playing an entire season in Baton Rouge and San Antonio] the people didn't lose their faith, they have come back. Some of them right away, some of them had to wait longer for different reasons.

"There are still people not back in New Orleans, but having the play-offs games here has helped the city economically, helped the state economically. I went to the stores this week and they are hopping if they are selling Saints stuff. And it will go on if the Saints triumph."

With Mardi Gras following fast on the heels of the Super Bowl, the "Who Dat" nation – so called because of the team's rallying cry: "Who dat say, dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?" – is in the mood to celebrate. "If we win the Super Bowl, it will be a 12-day party in this city," she says.

Playing the part of the big bad wolf out to dampen spirits in the Bayou tonight is Peyton Manning, the Colts quarterback fresh from winning an unprecedented fourth Most Valuable Player award and a New Orleans native. He will face an aggressive Saints defence determined to force mistakes.

"This guy's got a great clock in his head," said Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. "The big thing is he throws the ball so early that we're going to have to do a good job of finding ways to get to him. And when we do get to him we're going to have to make sure he gets a couple 'remember me' shots when we get there."

Before this season the Saints were known for their explosive offense but the recruitment of Williams, for whom coach Sean Payton sacrificed $250,000 (£160,000) of his salary to sweeten the pot, has given them a top-10 defense. They are the second best in the NFL at taking the ball away, which unlike most teams, they work on religiously in practice, and they forced five turnovers against the Vikings two weeks ago to survive in overtime despite being outgained by over 200 yards.

Yet the problem for New Orleans is that Manning, thanks to Williams' unusually frank explanation of the defensive game-plan, knows that they are coming and is a master at adjusting to what he sees on the field.

He is unique in that he calls all his own plays at the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who would normally tell his quarterback what to do, merely offers "suggestions". I witnessed the fear that Manning strikes into the hearts of his opposing brains trust: in Houston the defensive coaches returned ashen-faced to their "eye in the sky" after half-time and that was with a 20-7 lead.

Dwight Freeney, the Colts All-Pro defensive end, who may not play tonight after tearing an ankle ligament in the AFC Championship match, missed that Houston game. Yet Indianapolis, showing the poise that is their hallmark, shut down the Texans in the second half on the way to victory.

This is the big problem facing Saints quarterback Drew Brees who, worryingly for the fervent black and gold faithful, threw a number of flutterballs against the Vikings, conjuring fears of a recurrence of the shoulder problems that once threatened his career.

The 31-year-old Brees came to New Orleans in 2006 when the Hurricane Katrina devastation was still all too visible. "I felt like it was a calling," he told SI.com. With the Cathedral Academy nuns praying for the Saints to keep up the winning habit, perhaps he can fulfil his destiny tonight.

Super Bowl by numbers

$2.65m (£1.67m) estimated cost of 30-second advertising slot during game (down from $3m in 2009).

70.62 completion percentage of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees this season, an NFL record.

4 Most Valuable Player awards won by Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.

111 catches by prolific Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne this season.

100m estimated global television audience.

1 "wardrobe malfunctions" in previous half-time shows (Janet Jackson in Houston, 2004).

35 percentage of tickets divided evenly between Super Bowl teams.

10 number of times Miami has hosted the Super Bowl, more than any other city.

$335,000 (£211,000) price asked on website for a luxury suite ticket.

72 number of hours required to produce Vince Lombardi Trophy, made of silver and valued at $25,000. There is a new one made each year by Tiffany & Co.

Steve Hawdon

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