The New Orleans Saints are defending world champions. They really are, and they have a Vince Lombardi trophy to prove it.
Yeah, but can they do it again?
Nope. Well, it's possible. Then again, so is keeping drunks from stumbling down Bourbon Street for a minute or two.
Neither of those things is easily done, especially the one involving the Saints repeating as world champions. That's because they are part of something nearly as unpredictable as the weather across the Gulf of Mexico. It's called the National Football League.
I mean, nearly eight months after crawfish began to fly backward after the results of Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints will struggle just to repeat as kings in the NFC South. That hasn't been accomplished by anybody since the NFL realigned its divisions eight years ago.
More specifically, the Saints must find ways to keep the Atlanta Falcons from making the transition from hated foes of the Who Dat Nation to something scarier than that around here.
The Saints' problem? Doing it.
Such was the case for New Orleans, even before the Falcons physically pounded their way in overtime on Sunday afternoon at the Superdome to a 27-24 victory that matched the Saints at 2-1 in the division and sent a message to others around the league.
Here's that message: when discussing the NFL's elite, don't forget about the new Dirty Birds. Said Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who alternated with tight end Tony Gonzalez on a slew of clutch catches to push Matt Ryan (108.8 passer rating in this one) closer to joining the league's premier quarterbacks, "No more moral victories. No more for us, period. We're a good football team.
"We came in here, and we expected to win the game. We're not going at it as if we played hard anymore. We've got a lot of veteran players on this team. We've got guys that (have played) two or three years, and they're ready.
"They're acclimated. They're ready to go out there and play, and that's what we're going to do."
That's what the Falcons did against the Saints while overcoming a bunch of stuff along the way. There was most of the packed house of 70,051 screaming for the Saints so much that their faces turned gold, black and white. There was Drew Brees, the Saints' extraordinary passer, who completed 30 of 38 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns. There was the Saints' opportunistic defense on occasion, and there was Lance Moore playing out of his mind with a career-high 149 yards receiving and two touchdowns catches.
Oh, and the Saints scored quick and first. They also surged ahead at 21-17 near the end of the third quarter. And despite the Falcons taking the lead again with nearly nine minutes left to play in regulation, the Saints kicked the game into overtime.
The Falcons wouldn't give up.
They hadn't a choice, because in the aftermath, they'd have to contend with the likes of defensive end John Abraham.
"Hell, no. I wasn't coming out (of the game). I just told (the coaches and the doctors) I've got one eye. I'm not coming out. I'm OK," said Abraham, much calmer in the locker room. He played with double vision after he was poked in his right eye at some point during the see-saw drama, and his defiance was symbolic of the Falcons in general.
That and the two times that Falcons coach Mike Smith kept a touchdown drive alive near the end of the second quarter after he went for it on fourth-and-two and converted both times.
You also can throw in the couple of interceptions and the fumble recovery that the Falcons' defense used to douse what otherwise was the Saints' typical inferno of an offense.
This wasn't just a physical victory for the Falcons that culminated with Matt Bryant's game-winner kick from 46 yards in overtime.
This also was a mental victory.
"We prepared our (butts) off," Abraham said. "We prepare every week to the best of our abilities, but I think this week we prepared a little more than we probably needed to. A lot of things that we prepared for they didn't do, but the stuff they did do, we were prepared for it."
No question there, and the Falcons are rolling after losing a winnable game in Pittsburgh in overtime and ripping the Arizona Cardinals at home by 34 points. In contrast, the Saints barely handled a highly vulnerable Minnesota bunch during their opener, and they needed the 49ers' sloppiness to survive in San Francisco by three points.
It makes you wonder if the Saints are another in a mighty line of teams to suffer from post-Super Bowl blues. Against the Falcons, for instance, the Saints did much that was, well, old Saints-like -- as in when fans at the Superdome wore bags over their heads.
Brees' first interception was courtesy of a silly trick play, and his second (photo above) came after he tried shoveling a pass while stumbling. There was a horse-collar penalty that took the Falcons from third-and-goal at the Saints' one to first-and-goal from the Saints' six-inch line. Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees usually are splendid with time management, but they weren't before intermission on a drive that should have yielded points.
You also had the Garrett Hartley who booted the Saints into last season's Super Bowl in overtime against the Vikings in the NFC championship game missing a 29-yarder in this overtime.
"We still had an opportunity to win, as bad as we did," said Saints strong safety Roman Harper. "We're going to get every team's best, and it's going to be a tough challenge, but that's what's going to make us better. It's going to make you play harder, faster, longer. We're going to keep driving."
So will the Falcons.
Thus the Saints' biggest problem.
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