NEW ORLEANS -- There were nuns roaming the field waving freshly printed newspapers proclaiming the New Orleans Saints' triumph over the Vikings to get to their first Super Bowl. Team owner Tom Benson paraded around the Superdome with his tasseled parasol doing the "Benson Boogie." Fans, sobered up by the thrilling NFC Championship that was decided in overtime, reworked themselves into a lather of intoxicating celebration.
It was as surreal a snapshot as what happened not long before: The Vikings, in position to win at the end of regulation, getting flagged for 12 men on the field and then quarterback Brett Favre, who showed immeasurable guts and toughness, reverting back to Brett Favre, the reckless gunslinger. The 40-year-old quarterback ended his dream comeback by throwing an ugly interception, in typical want-to-be hero fashion across his body, into the arms of Saints cornerback Tracy Porter, the player he successfully picked on all game.
The head-scratching sequence didn't blow the game for the turnover-prone Vikings, who ended up losing the overtime coin flip and having New Orleans kick a 40-yard field goal to use a 31-28 score to advance to their first Super Bowl. But it did cost Favre a shot at an uncharted legacy -- winning a Super Bowl for two franchises in his 19th season. Now, he'll be remembered as a guy whose final passes in the final games over the past three seasons with the Packers, Jets and Vikings (final for now), were intercepted.
That's what this incredible game between two relentless teams left us: Nuns raising the roof and Favre falling short -- again.
In one breath, it's heartwarming, seeing a team and city so intertwined in joy and re-birth that it can't properly be described unless it is experienced. In another breath, it's perplexing and almost sad watching Favre provide as much hope and resurgence to a storied football franchise and his career to finish a season -- and maybe a career -- with a mistake he's made so many times before.
"I'm not surprised," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said of Favre's late interception. "He's a risk taker and it usually works out well for him. Tonight was our night."
Added Porter: "We knew that Favre likes to scramble and he's a guy that can throw across his body. I happened to read his eyes. He was looking at (receiver Sidney) Rice the whole time and I just happened to make a play on the ball."
"I probably should have ran it," Favre said about his final interception, which he threw rolling right, across his body to his left, in the direction of Rice. "I don't know how far I could have gotten, but in hindsight that is probably what I should have done."
Maybe, but he was rolling out on an ankle that was smashed late in the third quarter when he was drilled on a high-low hit by Saints defenders Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele. He also threw his first interception of the game on that play to linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Favre, who had been battered all game but got up in those cases, had to be helped off the field. He looked as good as done a few minutes later. But he came back.
So did the Saints. In more ways than one.
They've come back from a disappointing loss in the NFC title game to Chicago after the 2006 season and two subsequent non-playoff years to force five turnovers against a very good Minnesota team to earn the right to face the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
They're the second consecutive NFC team to make its maiden voyage to the Super Bowl. Arizona was last year's hard-luck franchise to get a taste. Now it's the Saints' turn and when it comes to New Orleans, there's no tasting. There's indulgence.
You get the feeling that as whimsical of a perfect storm of happiness as there is around this team and its city, the Saints aren't headed to Miami and the Super Bowl for a party. They can do that at home. This is a team on a mission, like the Colts, to capture something that is as hard to come by as a cool breeze at noon on the bayou here in August.
That's why, as enticing as it is to belabor Favre and him saying he'll probably take a few months to determine whether he'll come back next season, the Saints earned their due. They earned it by winning their first 13 games of the season on the strength of a better -- but not great -- defense, a solid running game and on the arm, leadership and character of quarterback Drew Brees.
As for this game, it can be argued that butter-fingered Minnesota lost it as much as New Orleans won it. But the Vikings are the team headed home.
"It's a pretty surreal moment," Brees said after a three-touchdown game that hinged as much on surviving the Vikings as it did beating them. "Words can't describe the feeling. You think back four years ago, coming here post-Katrina, (Coach) Sean Payton's first year. We had a goal and a dream back then. You can draw so many parallels between our team and our city, but in reality we kind of leaned on each other to survive."
In some way, winning this game at home to elicit a celebration of incredible proportions less than a week before the first Mardi Gras parade begins, was the Saints' -- or at least their fans' -- Super Bowl. It happened here and they got to experience it. Defeating the Colts to win the Super Bowl will be special, but for a city that hasn't had a lot of great things take place on its soil, this was something special.
The work isn't done yet. Nobody remembers Super Bowl losers. In facing the Colts, the Saints are playing a team that Brees called "a dynasty" because of their prolonged run of success. Quarterback Peyton Manning is arguably the best in the game, although Brees can make his argument for the short term.
Manning better take note, though, that the Saints won't be in awe. They've roughed up Favre and Arizona's Kurt Warner the past two weeks. Maybe not in the statistical way (sacks, hurries, etc.) but in bruises and bad mornings.
New Orleans' offense can strike quick -- as it did when countering an early Minnesota score and after a 61-yard kickoff return by Courtney Roby to start the second half led to a 9-yard touchdown run by Pierre Thomas to give New Orleans its first lead at 21-14. It also can massage the field when heading to the end zone. This toe-to-toe rumble with the Vikings could be a precursor to another swashbuckling against Indianapolis.
"We were going to keep playing until they kicked us off the field and told us to go home," Vilma said. "That's what we did. We kept playing until the end and fortunately things went our way."