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Sunday, September 22, 2002
Brooks takes over as Saints rally

By Kieran Darcy
ESPN The Magazine

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Two years ago, the 10-6 New Orleans Saints were the biggest surprise in the NFC. Last year, the 13-3 Chicago Bears held that title.

The Saints have taken the title back.

Aaron Brooks
Brooks

In Week 3's only battle of unbeaten teams, the Bears appeared well on their way to a rare comfortable victory, after squeakers in Weeks 1 and 2. A 20-0 second quarter lead had the Bears' transplanted fans rocking their temporary home at the University of Illinois.

"It seemed like our whole world was crashing down," said Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks.

That's when Brooks crashed the party.

It was only fitting. When the Saints marched to the NFC West title in 2000, Brooks was the biggest surprise on the squad, taking over for an injured Jeff Blake and leading the team to a playoff win over the St. Louis Rams. He was an alternate for the Pro Bowl a year ago, but his season was overshadowed by the Saints' 7-9 record.

Brooks is a playmaker in the air and on the ground, in the Donovan McNabb/Daunte Culpepper mold -- but without the hype. He's even been overshadowed on his own team this year by running back Deuce McAllister, Ricky Williams' replacement. But Brooks snatched the spotlight away with three touchdown passes and a spectacular scoring run in the Saints' 29-23 comeback victory.

Saints coach Jim Haslett admitted his game plan focused on running the ball against a Bears D-line depleted by injuries. McAllister was coming off back-to-back 100-yard games. But facing a 20-point deficit, the Saints' fate fell into Brooks' hands.

Brooks exemplified the resiliency of his whole team. He bounced back from an early interception and a couple of fumbled snaps to author a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter after the Bears briefly regained the lead.

"I asked him (Brooks) if he felt scared at the end," said Haslett. "He said, 'No, we're gonna win this game.'"

Brooks had reason to be confident. Several reasons, actually. The Saints have a very talented receiver corps -- Joe Horn, Jerome Pathon and rookie Donte' Stallworth all caught touchdown passes and combined for 15 receptions. And their offensive nucleus is fairly young -- Brooks is 26, McAllister, 23 and Stallworth, 21 -- which should make Saints fans confident in a very bright future.

But the future may have already arrived. The Saints have beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Green Bay Packers and the Bears -- three playoff teams from a year ago that were all expected to contend again this season. They, along with the Carolina Panthers (can it be?) are the hottest team in the NFC, and New Orleans seems unlikely to cool off with a game against the Lions in Week 4.

"I don't think we deserved to win this game, to be honest with you," said Haslett. "But we overcame a lot of adversity&that says a lot about our team."

It says the Saints and Aaron Brooks are for real.

Kieran Darcy covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.