By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?
Well, Archie’s boy might have something to say about that.
In a stunning turn of events, the team led through its formative years by a strong-armed quarterback named Archie Manning has finally made it to the Super Bowl. And look who’s standing in the way of the first NFL championship in New Orleans’ largely forgettable 43-year history as a pro football city.
None other than Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Archie’s son guided the Colts into the Super Bowl with a 30-17 victory over the upstart New York Jets in Sunday’s AFC championship game. About four hours later, the Saints stamped their ticket for South Beach by beating Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in an overtime thriller that decided the NFC title.
The winners will face off for the ultimate prize Feb. 7 in Miami.
Ever the doting father, Archie Manning attended the AFC championship game along with another son, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, and made it clear he’ll be rooting for the Colts in the Super Bowl, though he knows a Super Bowl title would mean so much to his adopted hometown.
The elder Manning still lives in New Orleans, hanging in there even as the city struggles more than four years later to overcome the hellishness of Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m pulling for the Colts 100 percent,” Archie Manning said. “It’s not even close.”
Still, the family subplot hovering over this game will give everyone plenty to talk about during the next two weeks.
Archie Manning was a hotshot quarterback out of neighboring Ole Miss when was selected No. 2 overall by the Saints in the 1971 draft. Everyone in New Orleans thought he was just the sort of player who could break the shackles of expansion ineptitude and turn around a franchise that went 14-40-2 over its four seasons in the NFL.
That might have been the case — if the Saints had bothered to bring in some linemen who could block or some receivers who could catch.
Playing nearly a dozen years in New Orleans, Manning became the pitiful face of a team that couldn’t seem to do anything right. He spent more time sprawled out on his back than a Bourbon Street reveler. The Saints never cracked .500 during the Manning era — in fact, near the end of his career, the team plunged to 1-15 and fans took to wearing paper sacks on the heads, calling themselves the ‘Aints.
Manning moved on to Houston, then finished up his career in Minnesota, of all places. His career record as a starter was 35-101-3, a .263 percentage that ranks as the worst in league history among quarterbacks with at least 100 starts.
The Saints didn’t post a winning record until 1987, their 21st season in the league. But that’s all in the past now, erased by a high-scoring team that won its first 13 games this season, wiped out Arizona in the divisional round, then ended the twice-retired Favre’s hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl at age 40.
It didn’t come easy. The Vikings were in position to win it at the end of regulation before Favre brazenly tried to pull off a tough throw back toward the middle of the field while rolling to his right, the ball was picked off to send the game to overtime.
Then, the team that spent a year on the road after Katrina pummeled its city and became a rallying cry for a still-fledgling rebirth, won the toss and drove into Vikings territory to set up Garrett Hartley’s 40-yard field goal. The kick sent a celebrating crowd pouring out onto Bourbon Street for a party sure to last through the night.
The Colts’ victory wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and the revelry in a city known for fast cars and sleepy nightlife wasn’t nearly as raucous. Then again, this is a group that has come to expect success since Archie’s boy arrived, reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
“When (Manning) goes up against the best, he takes his game to another level,” Colts rookie coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think that’s something we’ve kind of grown accustomed to around here.”
Indy closed out the 2006 season with a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears, making Tony Dungy the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. Now, Caldwell has a shot as being the third black coach in four years to take the title, and just the third first-year coach to win it all.
Not that he’s looking for any extra attention. That’s something he’s gone to great lengths to avoid since taking over as Dungy’s anointed successor, his most debated move coming when he pulled the starters in the next-to-last game to ruin a 14-0 team’s shot at perfection.
This is perfect enough.
“I’ve never needed anybody to tell me I’ve done a good job,” Caldwell said. “The great thing about this league? We’ve got a great barometer that tells you what kind of job that you’ve done, and that’s that won-lost record.”
So, the Colts are headed back to the big game, to face the team that hails from the city where Manning was born, the fleur-de-lis-clad guys he cheered for as a child.
Who dat he’s got to beat to win another ring? Yep, it’s his daddy’s team.