They used to be called the 'Aints, a doormat team of the National Football League whose lack of success was a mirror of the stricken city where they played. But with their victory in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, the New Orleans Saints have achieved something beyond even beatification.
The scoreline will record that the Saints overcame the favoured Indianapolis Colts by 31-17. But bare figures cannot convey the import of the franchise's first triumph in the showpiece game of the NFL season, one that represents not just a sporting milestone but a huge step towards laying to rest the trauma of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Like cup finals and heavyweight title fights, Super Bowls often fail to live up their hype. Not this one, however. The Colts and the Saints provided an unequalled drama, replete with controversial plays, sudden reversals of fortunes, bold and game-changing moves by a head coach, a compelling duel between two great quarterbacks and – of course – a storyline for the ages.
The Saints might have been the people's favourites, but they went into the contest as underdogs, and for the first quarter the cold assessment of the oddsmakers seemed justified. The Saints looked overawed and overmatched, crushed beneath the weight of expectations.
Led by Peyton Manning, at least until this game generally regarded as the greatest quarterback of recent times, the Colts took a 10-point lead on a field goal and a touchdown, after Manning connected with the wide receiver Pierre Garcon. The play capped a 96-yard drive, tying the longest in Super Bowl History. At that point, few would have bet against a second Super Bowl for Indianapolis within four years.
But then the momentum changed, as it would prove, for good. Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback, had been hesitant in the early stages. But he found his rhythm. In the first quarter he threw just two completions out of six, for a meagre 22 yards. Thereafter, however, Brees was well nigh perfect, missing his target on only three of 33 passes, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
At first the rewards were slow to come. For all their dominance, the Saints managed only two field goals in the second quarter. But with the kickoff for the second half everything changed – and the Saints' Sean Payton showed why he is one of the most imaginative and risk-taking head coaches in the game.
"We're going to surprise them," he told the team during the interval. "Defence get ready, we're going to go with an onside kick." The gambit worked even more perfectly than Payton could have hoped. Not only did the Saints recover the kick, regaining possession on their own 20-yard line, but the ensuing drive resulted in a touchdown that put New Orleans ahead for the first time.
The Colts responded with a touchdown of their own, but it would be their last score. After cutting their deficit to a single point with a third field goal, the Saints scored twice in the last six minutes to make their fairy tale come true.
With 5:42 minutes left, tight end Jeremy Shockey barrelled over for a two-yard touchdown, capped by a two-point conversion that gave New Orleans the advantage for good, as well as a seven-point advantage that meant the Colts now needed not one but two scores to get the lead back.
But with 3:12 to play that calculation became superfluous as Manning, under intense time pressure, was out-guessed by the Saints defence. An attempted third-down pass was intercepted by the New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who ran 74 yards for a touchdown. In the Big Easy the celebrations could begin in earnest – and so could the debate whether Brees, not Manning, was now the league's premier quarterback.
In the final three-quarters of the game, Saints outscored their opponents by 31 points to seven. In this post-season, moreover, Brees has prevailed over three of the league's most decorated quarterbacks: Kurt Warner of Arizona in the divisional round, Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game and now Peyton Manning on the biggest stage of all.
Afterwards, Manning was generous in defeat. "We just didn't play well enough at certain times and in certain phases. But give the Saints credit. They made the critical plays when they had to and we didn't. And that was the difference in the game."
But history too surely had a hand in proceedings. "We're a team of destiny," Porter said. For no one was that truer than Brees. Discarded in 2006 by the San Diego Chargers, who believed he would never fully recover from major shoulder injury, Brees ended up with the Saints, one of the few teams prepared to take a chance on him.
Payton is one of football's gamblers, as he proved in Miami on Sunday evening. But no gamble was greater than the acquisition of Brees. And none has paid off more handsomely.