Thursday, September 9, 2010
Updated: September 12, 4:35 PM ET
Saints will find it's not easy being big
By Gene Wojciechowski
NEW ORLEANS -- The First Lady came marching in. So did the Dave Matthews Band. And Taylor Swift. And Brad Pitt. And the NFL commish. And seemingly every TV satellite truck in the Western Hemisphere.
For one Thursday day and night, New Orleans was the Who's Who capital for Who Dat. You couldn't swing a fleur-de-lis in this town without hitting someone who was still on a Super Bowl high. And if they weren't celebrating last season, they were celebrating the start of this season.
"Unbelievable," said new Saints defensive end Alex Brown. "Absolutely amazing. ... When we first came out I thought I was going to have to put my hands over my ears because my head was ringing. Oh, man."
The Superdome crowd of 70,051 (seemed like 170,051) was so deafening that jet engines asked Saints fans to keep it down. And just to be on the safe side, structural engineers should check the stadium roof for cracks.
So, yes, the Saints left here with possible hearing loss and a 14-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings, the same team New Orleans beat in the NFC Championship eight months ago. That game felt epic. This one felt like the fifth game of the preseason.
"Ugly" is how Saints running back Reggie Bush described it. And he was right. Ugly and beautiful at the same time, because 1-0 looks a lot more attractive than the Vikings' 0-1.
But cut away the ankle tape of this game and the Saints are left staring at a new reality: A Two Dat -- New Orleans shorthand for back-to-back Lombardi trophies -- is going to be harder than the Saints ever imagined.
I'm not saying the Saints are suffering from a Super Bowl hangover, but their fans are. Bourbon Street still has bruise marks from the post-championship celebration. They figure the Saints will keep doing what they did last season, which was force a million turnovers and lead the world in points scored.
But Thursday evening's game revealed once again why only two teams (the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos) have won consecutive Super Bowls in the past 16 seasons. You have to have abs of steel to take everyone's best punch. And you have to be able to hit back.
"You want to beat the best because you kind of want to measure yourself as a team to see where you're at," Bush said. "We've been in that position before and now it's the other teams' turn to chase us. I love it that way. I wouldn't have it any other way. We want everybody's A game. We don't want to sneak up on anybody anymore. People are aware of us. They know they got to bring their A game when they play us."
The Vikings brought their B-minus game. Brett Favre played his age or, at least, played rusty. For every gorgeous pass (like the precision missile strike to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe down the seam for a 33-yard gain late in the second quarter), there were two underthrown passes. At times you wondered if Favre could complete a pass to one of the Wrangler jeans guys.
Minnesota was without injured star wide receiver Sidney Rice. They were down to three healthy cornerbacks. They were playing in the Ear Plug Dome.
And yet, the Saints won by only five points. Their defense played well, but the Drew Brees-led offense was noticeably off. Only 308 net yards? Three-of-11 on third downs? Dropped passes? Two missed field goals?
"We're not used to 14-9 victories, but we're used to winning," Brees said.
That's what matters. But the Saints know their margin of error is as wide as a smudge of eye black. They're no longer the adorable little Brees-ettes. They've got the trophy, the rings and now the pursuers.
"We've forgotten about last year a long time ago," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "I know the fans have been partying and enjoying it, but we've moved on a long time ago. ... Last season was last season. Last season was special, and we enjoyed it. But this is a new season, and we've got to prove ourselves all over again."
Vilma did his part. He cuddled one of Favre's forced floaters for an interception, but the Saints' offense could only budge the ball forward 2 yards. Then the usually reliable Garrett Hartley came in and missed a 46-yarder. He later missed a 32-yard chippy.
"Things like that are inexcusable at this level," Hartley said.
The Saints' D made Adrian Peterson earn every one of his 87 rushing yards. And on more than a few occasions Favre had to hurry throws because of pressure. He completed 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards and easily could have had more than the one interception.
A season ago those Saints wouldn't have let the Vikings hang around. Brees would have exploited the Vikings' napkin-thin secondary for huge yardage and points. This time they picked their spots and then closed out the game with running back Pierre Thomas. Interesting.
"We answered a lot of questions tonight," Saints cornerback Tracy Porter said.
Actually, no they didn't. The question that matters remains the same: Can the Saints win a second consecutive Super Bowl?
Right now, the answer is, absolutely maybe.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
MORE COMMENTARY »