NFC South: Dwight Clark

Sunday night’s NFC Championship Game was historic for New Orleans in more ways than one. Aside from being the first championship game in the city and the Saints clinching their first Super Bowl berth, it marked the most-watched postseason in local market.

According to Neilsen Media Research, New Orleans had a 63.2/82 last night, the highest local rating ever for a postseason NFL game and beating the home market rating of every team that ever has played in a Super Bowl. The audience in New Orleans peaked at 67.4/86 at 10:15 p.m. as Garrett Hartley made the game-winning field goal.

Minneapolis posted a 58.7/80, which is the third-best ever for a local rating, trailing only New Orleans for the same game and Milwaukee in the 1997 NFC Championship Game.

Overall, Nielsen said the game reached 57.9 million national viewers, the largest audience for any conference championship game since the 1982 game between the Cowboys and 49ers, where Dwight Clark made “The Catch." Aside from Super Bowl broadcasts, Sunday’s NFC Championship Game was television’s most-watched program since the 1998 finale of “Seinfeld," that drew 76.3 million viewers.
 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  Led by Drew Brees and Reggie Bush, the Saints have plenty of firepower on offense.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- To understand why the New Orleans Saints have a chance to do great things this season, you have to go back to the lowest moment of last season.

Believe it or not, there was some beauty in early October's 30-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Superdome. Do you need a reminder of the ugliness? Think of the Saints making Gus Frerotte and Bernard Berrian seem like Joe Montana and Dwight Clark just moments after Reggie Bush had made two miraculous punt returns for touchdowns in a "Monday Night Football" game.

As the Vikings kicked the winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining, defensive back Darren Sharper stood on the Minnesota sidelines. In hindsight, he glimpsed something special in the Saints.

"I think the main thing was I saw this team as being on the cusp of not only making the playoffs, but of making a championship run,'' Sharper said.

Cusp of the playoffs? Coach Sean Payton's Saints finished the 2008 campaign 8-8, and that came on the heels of a 7-9 season.

"Three or four games, they let big plays happen,'' Sharper said. "That's the difference between 11-5 and 8-8.''

As crazy as it might sound, Sharper's precisely right. The Saints might be the league's biggest disappointment the last two seasons, but that's also part of the reason they might be this year's most promising team.

They're loaded with names -- Drew Brees, Bush, Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston and Jonathan Vilma. The flashy marquee has not yielded dramatic results. The Saints were the trendy pick by a lot of media outlets to make the Super Bowl last season, but didn't even come close.

Blame it on bad luck, a rash of injuries or whatever. No matter how you look at it, the Saints underachieved. They're out to make sure it doesn't happen again. Maybe it's better that they're coming into this season without high expectations from the outside, because, on the inside, the Saints are expecting a lot more.

That's part of the reason Sharper decided to sign with the Saints as a free agent. That's part of the reason the Saints brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, cornerback Jabari Greer, defensive end Paul Spicer and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

"I wanted to go with the team that has the best chance of winning a ring,'' Sharper said. "I think New Orleans has that.''

On paper, the Saints do have that.

 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  The Saints will need Jonathan Vilma and the defense to improve this season.

They've got the league's top-ranked offense from last season. Keep in mind, all that happened with Shockey, Colston and Bush each missing significant playing time. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards in a season when the Saints had little consistency in the running game and didn't get Shockey into the end zone.

"As good as it was last year, No. 1, that's our goal,'' Shockey said. "I think our goal again is to be No. 1.''

How much better than No. 1 can the offense be?

Actually, a lot. If Shockey and Colston can return to anything like they were earlier in their careers and Bush can play like he did in the first half of last season, Brees could end up shattering records. The Saints also are hoping to do a better job controlling the running game with some sort of combination of Bush, Pierre Thomas and a short-yardage back to be named later.

But, more than anything, they need to improve defensively. Funny, but that sounds like the same story from the past two offseasons. The Saints made moves such as bringing in Jason David and Randall Gay to solidify the secondary. They signed defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to get more out of the unit.

Those moves never brought the desired results. The Saints overhauled their defense again this offseason. They spent a small fortune on Greer and still drafted Jenkins in the first round to beef up the cornerback position. They got linebacker Dan Morgan out of retirement and plan to play him on the weak side.

They signed Spicer and Anthony Hargrove to push starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. Orgeron left. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was fired and replaced by Williams, who has a reputation as one of the league's best defensive minds.

They're plugging Sharper in as the free safety and trying to build around Vilma and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the only two bright spots from the 2008 defense. They're also getting cornerback Tracy Porter, who showed some promise early last season, back from a broken wrist.

Maybe, like Sharper said, there will be even more big plays on offense and fewer big plays allowed on defense. That formula probably would be enough to put the Saints into the playoffs.

"It's an offense that's been at the top of the league the last couple of years and a defense that can
be a ball-hawking defense and the special teams are explosive when you can put a guy like Reggie out there,'' Sharper said.

"And the camaraderie that guys have. Guys like each other and want to play for each other. That goes for the coaches, too. Whenever you have that great chemistry, that goes a long way. Last year [the] Arizona [Cardinals], nobody expected they would be there at the end. When you have all the pieces in place, you know you have a shot.''

Maybe, with all the new pieces, the Saints will have a shot at more than they've accomplished the last two years.

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