I arrived in New Orleans the night before the Saints' 45-14 shellacking of the Cardinals and the air of foreboding was everywhere.
Too much rust, not enough defense, no rhythm on offense. How will the Saints screw it up this time? The questions ran rampant from fans and media alike.
And when Tim Hightower took the handoff from Kurt Warner and went 70 yards to the endzone on the game's very first play, the air went out of the Louisiana Superdome as if the Cardinals had just stuck a pin in a balloon.
But this Saints team is different and it used this divisional playoff game to chase away the demons of all the disappointments Saints fans have suffered through the years as one of only five NFL teams that have never been to a Super Bowl. Over the next 59 minutes, 41 seconds, New Orleans mercilessly dominated the Cards, outgaining them 418-289 and outscoring them 45-7 in as thorough a playoff beating as this reporter has ever seen.
Along the way all that foreboding began shifting to a sense of inevitability. It appears this Saints team really is different.
The difference in viewing a game from the sidelines, which is where I was, reporting for Westwood One Radio, is the ability to observe and even interact on occasion with the players. And the first key point in this football game was the clear message on the New Orleans sideline that there was no panic there. The look in Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees' eyes almost said, "good, now we can get on the field quicker" and it was almost like, "game on."
Just 5:24 later, as FB Lynell Hamilton capped a10-play, 72-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge to tie the game, I couldn't help but wonder if it was "game over"?
Then, Saints CB Randall Gay stripped Arizona WR Jerheme Urban on the very next play and New Orleans recovered, setting up a short, 37-yard, four-play TD drive that made the score 14-7. The Saints followed that with a three-and-out from Arizona before marching 77 yards on five plays in just 2:54 that made it 21-7, highlighted by Reggie Bush's spectacular 46-yard TD run with 2:31 left in the first quarter.
For all practical purposes this one was over. But there was one more turning point to come.
After forcing the Saints' first punt of the game, Arizona got the ball at its own 20, early in the second quarter. On 2nd-and-7 from the 42, Kurt Warner tried to hit Steve Breaston on a deep out at the Saints' 28 but was picked off on a spectacular play by the ageless Darren Sharper. It appeared any kind of Saints drive would stick a fork in the Cardinals. But there was a flag on the field and LB Scott Shanle was called for roughing Warner, giving the ball back to the Cardinals at the Saints' 44.
On the New Orleans sideline, there was confusion and anger as no one could figure out where the roughing was called nor were they even sure who the call was on. When the replay on the Jumbotron proved it was a phantom call at best, Saints players were irate, and when Beanie Wells ran four yards for a TD six plays later, suddenly it was a one score game again at 21-14.
Were we in store for Cardinals-Packers II?
Hardly! Brees marched the Saints 83 yards on six plays in just 2:52, capped by a 44-yard bomb to WR Devery Henderson on a flea-flicker and the Cardinals were done.
Pro Bowl CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and FS Antrel Rolle were both on the sideline with knee and head injuries, respectively, and through for the day. And two plays later,Warner was picked off by Will Smith at his own 32 and then decleated by DE Bobby McCray as he attempted to chase Smith. As Warner was helped from the field after laying motionless on the field for a good two minutes there was no doubt the Saints were headed to the second NFC championship game in franchise history.
Warner was heroic in re-entering the game in the third quarter in obvious pain from what the Cards labeled a chest injury, but the Saints' offense never took their foot off the gas and their defense never stopped coming.
A huge part of the story was Bush, who played the game of his life with 217 yards of total offense and an 83-yard punt-return TD on top of the 46-yard TD run. When he wasn't making an impact on the field, Bush was up and down the Saints' sideline all afternoon prodding and pumping up his teammates as well as himself.
The Saints' defensive leader, Jonathan Vilma had a story of his own as well.
Born to Haitian parents, it had been a horrible week for Vilma, trying to prepare for the game of his life while struggling to get news of relatives living in Haiti. Vilma told me on the field immediately following the game, "It was very difficult to concentrate but I knew what this game meant to New Orleans so I did the best I could and now I can take a day or two to really focus on Haiti and find out what we can do to help."
In the end, as much as it meant to the Saints' players and coaches, this win really was about the city of New Orleans and its fans. Just before the game I visited briefly with Joe Browne, the NFL's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, and Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, who reminisced about working with Saints owner Tom Benson in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to save the Saints for New Orleans and working with the city to rebuild the Superdome.
In this week when we've all suffered with the people of Haiti and the horrid images of the disaster they're battling, the symmetry of being in New Orleans and seeing it reborn with pride and the fans' hopes for their Saints, it was hard not to cheer just a little bit for all they've accomplished.
It will, of course, get tougher next week but at least for 60 minutes on Saturday the Saints were the best team in football, and the party in New Orleans was on.