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NFC Championship Game: New Orleans Saints take down Minnesota Vikings in overtime to advance to first Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — Some stories just need time to develop. They need heartache to give them depth, and pain to give them meaning.

Some stories are capable of crossing generations and social classes. Maybe they cannot fix what has already passed, but they can make it a little easier to push aside images not easily forgotten.

This is a story like that. A story of a woebegone football team from a goshforsaken city. This is the story of how a team of Saints finally reached a Super Bowl, and how the city of New Orleans recovered in time to celebrate.

"It's unbelievable. I think you can draw so many parallels between our team and our city," said quarterback Drew Brees. "In reality we've had to lean on each other in order to survive and get to where we are now. The city is on its way to recovery, and in a lot of ways it's come back better than ever. As a team we've used the strength and the resilience of our fans to go out and play every Sunday.

"When I look at what this year has meant to this community, not only the regular season but hosting two playoff games and what it meant for this economy and the spirit of this city and these people, it's special."

That it has taken the Saints 43 years to reach the Super Bowl feels almost incidental today. That they have made it a little more than four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city feels appropriate.

Not so long ago, the Superdome was the symbol of a city torn apart. The roof was leaking above, and the floor was awash with stories of devastation and desperation. The football team spent a year on the road while a stadium was refurbished, and a city was rebuilt.

"This is for everybody in this city," Saints coach Sean Payton said on the field. "This stadium used to have holes in it, and be wet. It's not wet anymore. This is for the city of New Orleans."

The Saints beat the Vikings 31-28 in overtime in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday evening in front of a team-record crowd of 71,276. And they did it, you might say, with a leap of faith.

Faced with fourth and 1 from the Minnesota 43 in overtime, New Orleans opted to go for the first down. Tailback Pierre Thomas took the handoff and leapt into the air, not knowing where the Saints season might land. When referees spotted the ball, the Saints had a first down, and a few plays later placekicker Garrett Hartley hit a 40-yard field goal for the winner.

"The people here are so great. What they've been through has been incredible," said linebacker Scott Fujita. "To all the people of New Orleans, we love you. We thank you. And I'm proud to be able to represent you in the Super Bowl."

You have to understand, this is a franchise whose timing has always been just a little off. They had Billy Kilmer before he was good, and Ken Stabler after he was good. They hired Hank Stram to be the head coach, but long after he had won a Super Bowl. They tried another Super Bowl winner years later, but Mike Ditka failed, too.

They went 20 years before they had their first winning season, and 33 years before winning a playoff game. Only the Detroit Lions, at 44 consecutive years, have missed more Super Bowls than the Saints.

Although now that they have finally made it, there is a cruel irony for one of the franchise's greatest names. Archie Manning has spent the better part of a lifetime waiting for this Super Bowl. He was the first legitimate star for the Saints in the 1970s and went on to become a broadcaster in New Orleans where he raised his boys Peyton and Eli.

And now Manning has to watch his Saints in Super Bowl XLIV against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

But those concerns were a long way off on Sunday evening. As confetti fell and music played, safety Darren Sharper carried the George Halas Trophy around the perimeter of the Superdome. Stopping in a corner of the end zone, Sharper led the crowd in a chant that has become commonplace on city streets, in restaurants and even a church or two.

Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

The origins of the chant are fuzzy. There are some who say a variation of the phrase dates back to the jazz era of the 1920s or even earlier minstrel and vaudeville shows. In New Orleans, some say it became popular at the Patterson High School football games when future Saints running back Dalton Hilliard was a star in the 1970s, while others credit Southern University crowds.

No matter where it might have come from, the chant will forever belong to these people.

It speaks to their irreverence. To their devotion. It speaks to the spirit of a city that refused to stay down.

Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

On this night, at least, the answer is no one.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

NFC Championship Game: New Orleans Saints take down Minnesota Vikings in overtime to advance to first Super Bowl 01/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 12:28am]

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