When we arrived in New Orleans to visit J and K ten days ago, we took a cab from the airport into the city. The driver was silent until we asked something about the Saints (who, up till their most recent game, had accumulated a perfect 13-0 record). The driver got very animated and explained that his team was about to earn a playoff home field advantage when they defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday’s game. The Bucs had an awful 2 and 12 record, and never in NFL history had a 2-win team beaten a 13-win team. He said the whole city had gone wild about the Saints this season. When he turned off the expressway into Mid City we could see what he meant. There were billboards, Saints banners on people’s porches, yard signs in their yards, pictures in their windows, bumper stickers on cars. Once we traveled about a bit we saw numerous people wearing Saints’ jerseys (typically with a large number 9 -- quarterback Drew Brees’ number) The community seemed in a state akin to religious frenzy.
Practically the first thing that J said when we met up was that there was a chance he could get us tickets to the Saints-Bucs game. Their friends Murph and Marie were due to fly back from Illinois on Sunday morning, but, with the Midwest racked by major winter storms, many flights were being delayed or cancelled. We were excited. Like other fans nation-wide, we’d followed the Saints’ amazing run, and Sunday’s game would be a momentous occasion. Murph had told J that, if they couldn’t get back from Illinois, J could have their tickets. J reflected that it was probably immoral of him to wish their flight would be cancelled, but he couldn’t help but hope. On Saturday morning J called Murph to check on their flight situation, and, much to J’s dismay, Murph said that he’d already promised the tickets to somebody else. But Murph said he’d see what he could do. After a couple more phone calls back and forth, Murph said that he been able to locate two tickets. However, J asked where they were located, Murph explained the seats were in separate sections. J politely said thanks but no thanks, and we decided that going to a neighborhood sports bar would be nearly as much fun.
A little before Sunday noon we walked a few blocks over to Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, which I was later to learn was a famous New Orleans football gathering place. As we approached the door, we heard a lot of screaming and shouting, and J nodded and smiled. We went on, and the female bartender was working up the crowd over a microphone, getting people to shout “Who Dat?” at the top of their voices. The whole place was jam-packed. There were a half dozen TVs mounted on the various walls near the ceiling. An employee pointed us to the only empty remaining space in the whole room, next to the wall behind the pool table, underneath one TV set, but obliquely facing another TV at an angle. Not ideal, but we could see what was going on. J bought a round of drinks, and we settled in.
J and K traded child-care duties after halftime. Things began to get a little dicier as the second half unfolded. Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams began making one solid run after the next, and the Saints’ defense suddenly was looking more vulnerable. The Bucs scored one touchdown and then another, and the crowd in Finn McCool’s quieted down and smiles vanished. K arrived at the bar in a state of shock and asked us what in the world was going on. Late in the final quarter the Bucs tied the game with a field goal. Nobody in Finn’s could believe it. Then with less than two minutes to go Drew Brees did his magic again and brought the Saints into field goal range. There were two or three seconds left on the clock.. The snap was good, and the highly reliable Saints’ kicker kicked the ball solidly. Inexplicably, though, he shanked the ball to the left, and his very makeable 37-yard attempt failed. The Saints’ owner on the TV screen, misreading the field goal as good, jumped with joy, as did we fans. Then, just as quickly, we all groaned as the officials signalled the kick no good. The game clock expired.
It just felt like more bad Karma when Tampa Bay won the coin flip to start overtime. It was bad Karma. They promptly marched straight down the field and kicked a field goal of their own to win the game, 20-17. The bar was silent; the fans, stunned and incredulous. Several started crying visibly; others simply grimaced and shook their heads. Nobody said a whole lot. The bartender on her microphone tried to get the crowd to yell that the Saints were still going to win the Super Bowl, but she was met with lukewarm enthusiasm at best.
We went outside and ran into one of K and J’s friends, Rick, on the sidewalk. Rick said this was more like the Saints of old and that they probably won’t do much from here on out. Rick’s companion commented that many of the Saints’ wins in their 13-0 run were last minute flukes and that their luck was over. Later we listened to a local sports radio commentator who denigrated the Saints’ defense as pitiful and said their chances of winning a game in the playoffs were next to zero. While the city seemed on a massive high before the Tampa Bay game, it had abruptly plunged into collective despair. The team that people idolized was now the object of distrust and disillusion.
So now it’s nearly a week later and there’s been time for spirits to recover. New Orleans plays Carolina tomorrow. The Saints are 13-2 and have the second best win-loss record in the NFL this season. They have a bye for the first week and, because of Minnesota’s loss, will enjoy a home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They have one of the most successful quarterbacks and one of the most potent offenses in professional football this year. Tampa Bay was an embarrassing catastrophe, to be sure, but, based on their season record, the Saints’ prospects are favorable. It would help though if you join our daily noontime prayer circle – the team does need a little support from above (and who’s more deserving of it than “the Saints”). Who Dat?