Sport is made of fairy tales, and no fairy tale would be bigger. Four years ago a great American city was victim of the worst natural disaster in modern US history. Now its American football team has a chance to proclaim that city's rebirth by marching all the way to the Super Bowl.
For fans of the National Football League, this weekend is heaven – the moment that march begins in earnest, with the divisional round of the play-offs: four mouthwatering match-ups and as many great story lines. Can those lovable losers the New York Jets upend the San Diego Chargers, regarded by many as the NFL's best team? Can 40-year-old Brett Favre lead the Minnesota Vikings past the surging Dallas Cowboys; or will Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts lay further claim to the title of greatest quarterback of his era? But the best story, surely, is the New Orleans Saints.
They used to call the Cowboys "America's team", but that designation surely now belongs to New Orleans – for neutrals, the sentimental favourites, if not quite the bookies' favourites, to go all the way. For one thing, among the eight teams in action this weekend, only the Saints have never even been to the Super Bowl, let alone won it. For another, they play an exhilarating, high-scoring brand of football, boasting perhaps the most potent offence in the NFL.
Above all, however, there's the shadow of Katrina. If anything, the catastrophe unfolding now in Haiti has rekindled memories of New Orleans' own disaster, of 29 August, 2005, the hurricane that left the city under water (and, among other things, forced its football team to play that entire season on the road). Even today, New Orleans has only partially recovered. Its population has crept back to 300,000, but is still far short of the pre-Katrina 450,000. Swathes of the poorer eastern districts are still a wasteland. Nothing would lift spirits like a triumph in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. And finally the city may have the team to deliver it.
A double message, to be found on the $15 black T-shirts sponsored by the players and whose proceeds will go to local charities, sums up the 2009/2010 Saints. "Our city, our home," it reads on the front, declaring the bond between New Orleans and its team. No less pertinent however are the two words on the back. "Finish strong."
Barely a month ago, the exhortation would have been superfluous. The Saints were a perfect 13-0 for the season, and seemingly cruising to Miami, but suddenly the magic vanished. The regular season ended with three losses, including, most worryingly, one to the Cowboys, who showed in a 24-17 victory how the vaunted New Orleans offence could be stifled.
History now is not encouraging. The Saints might have already done enough to secure a top seeding slot for the play-offs. But never has a team coming off three such losses in a row recovered to win the Super Bowl. The Saints must now prove history wrong, by finishing strong at the most important moment of all.
And there are reasons to suppose they can. Top seeding secures not only a bye in the wild-card first round of play-offs, but also home field advantage thereafter. In the Saints' case, home field means the Superdome. In 2005, the arena provided some of the most harrowing images of Katrina's aftermath. Its function as a squalid, stinking temporary home for thousands made homeless by the storm seemed to epitomise New Orleans' descent to third-world status. Now it has been rebuilt, more compact and intimidating than ever – a deafening cauldron where noise and will power together can carry the Saints to victory.
The first test comes today, in a match-up against the Arizona Cardinals. After the Cardinals won a riotous first-round game against Green Bay 51-45, a high-scoring contest seems very likely. But Saints have the weapons to win. For one, tight end Jeremy Shockey, a key ingredient in their offence but who missed those three losing games, is back in the black-and-gold uniform.
Then there's quarterback Drew Brees. His career is a fairy tale of its own, a miraculous comeback from a devastating shoulder injury in 2005, in what would prove his last game for the San Diego Chargers. One specialist gave him a mere one in 500 chance of full recovery. Then Brees experienced what he describes as his "calling" to stricken New Orleans. His recovery, indubitably, is complete.
In 2008, he became only the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season (the other is Dan Marino), and this season set a new NFL pass completion record of 70.62 per cent. In New Orleans, they refer to him simply as "Breesus". The question now is whether this modern day messiah can deliver to his adopted city America's greatest sporting prize.
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