"Never give up," Vilma said.
The Minnesota Vikings were right there, on the brink of field goal range, as the final minute of the NFC championship game ticked away -- and with Brett Favre at controls. The Saints, though, didn't give up. Not as Favre was flushed from the pocket and eschewed some easy rushing yards for one of his down-field gambles. That's where cornerback Tracy Porter came in, plucking a game-saving interception and forcing a dramatic overtime period that will live forever in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged region.
"We were at rock bottom and it's been a long road," Saints offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "Now look how far we've come."
And where they're going.
Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal 10 plays into the extra period ignited a record Who-Dat-ing crowd of 71,276 into a confetti-flying, emotionally charged victory celebration, courtesy of a 31-28 victory that gave the Saints the first conference title in their 42-year existence, and first shot at the NFL's world championship.
"It's unbelievable," quarterback Drew Brees beamed after passing for 197 yards and three touchdowns. "You can draw so many parallels between our team and this city. We've had to rely on each other to get to this point. We used the strength and the resiliency of our fans to go out and play and achieve everything we set out to achieve and we had to fight through adversity -- just like this city."
"This is for everybody in this city who had homes that used to be wet," coach Sean Payton said atop the postgame podium while cradling the NFC championship George Halas Trophy. "This is for the city of New Orleans."
This was one the city and its Saints easily could have lost. Maybe should have. The Vikings took care of the football like they'd just rolled in off a rough afternoon on Bourbon Street.
"It doesn't feel like they won the game," Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson said. "It feels like we lost it."
Five Minnesota turnovers -- four in enemy territory, two inside the 20, including one at the Saints 2 -- undermined an offense that rolled up 475 total yards (nearly twice as many as New Orleans) on its way to a crushing ending to a fairy-tale story of its own.
"I don't even know where to begin," said Favre, the 40-year-old wonder who became the league's best subplot of the 2009 season and now faces another offseason of retirement talk and speculation. "I hoped we would have gone a little further. This is a great group of guys and it's disappointing. That's an understatement."
And it was seconded by Minnesota coach Brad Childress after watching his team blow scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity.
"Bitterly disappointing ... and unfulfilling," Childress said after the Vikings were denied their first Super Bowl berth since the 1976 season. "We had no three-turnover games this year. To have five, well, is difficult to overcome."
But they nearly did.
Behind 310 passing yards and a touchdown from Favre and 122 rushing yards from Peterson, the Vikings tied the shootout for the fourth time on Peterson's third touchdown of the game, a 2-yarder with 5:03 to go. The play, momentarily, helped atone for an earlier Peterson fumble on a botched handoff at the Saints 2 with the game tied at 14 and just a minute to go in the first half.
After forcing Brees into a three-and-out, Minnesota got the ball back with 2:37 remaining and, five plays later, had a first down at the Saints 33. Close enough for kicker Ryan Longwell (26 of 28 on the season, with a long of 52) to attempt a 50-yarder?
"I believe that we would have, yes," Childress said.
The Vikings took a timeout with 19 seconds to go, but when they broke the huddle for a third-and-10, they did so with an extra man, drawing a 5-yard penalty. That 50-yarder became 55, and forced Childress and Favre to get a little more.
Instead, they got a little too greedy.
Favre, who came into the game having thrown 10 TDs and no interceptions the previous 10 quarters, was flushed from the pocket on the down, and probably could have gotten the five yards back on foot -- even on the hobbled ankle he played through after being smothered late in the third period by two Saints defensive linemen.
"I should have ran," Favre said.
Instead, he threw left across the field while running to his right. Porter stepped in front of receiver Sidney Rice with seven seconds to go.
"I read his eyes," Porter said. "He was looking at Rice the whole way."
It would be Favre's final pass of the night, as the Saints won the toss and went marching into history.
A fourth-and-1 conversion inside Minnesota territory, plus a couple Vikings penalties, got the Saints into Hartley's range. He responded with the kick that put him in the heart of everyone with the fleur-de-lis logo pulsating on their chests.
"I'm honored to be a part of it," Hartley said. "It was the fate of this team."
And the Crescent City.
Together, they never gave up.