The Saints' first game back in the Louisiana Superdome in 13 months was seen primarily as an opportunity for this rebuilding city to showcase itself, to reintroduce itself to the world as more than just a community still crippled in many areas by Hurricane Katrina and the great flood but as one attempting to get back up and running.
The 2-0 record the home team brought to its Monday Night Football matchup with division rival Atlanta was a short sidebar to the feel-good story of the Saints finally returning home. Not anymore. The Saints turned their homecoming celebration into a coming-out party and showed the nation that New Orleans doesn't just have its team back, it's got a pretty good team at that.
Consecutive road wins to start the season against teams who to this point have combined to win one game didn't earn the Saints a lot of respect nationally, but a 23-3 plucking of a Falcons club that spent the first two games running its way into the record books and looked capable of making a Super Bowl run just might do the trick.
Of course, it's too early for even diehards to star talking Saints and Super Bowl XLI simply because they took care of business at home in Super Bowl XL½ (there was a championship game buzz around this one). But New Orleans already has matched its win total last season and is just one of six clubs leaguewide that can boast a 3-0 record. That speaks for itself. That says rookie coach Sean Payton just might have something here.
And most important, this depressed region finally has something else to talk about other than hurricane-related problems. Specifically, a team that looks legitimately capable of causing other contenders problems. The Saints didn't squeak by the Falcons or win on some fluke play, or lucky bounce, or blown call. They thoroughly outperformed Atlanta. Now they're in first place, already with a two-game lead over preseason favorite Carolina and a three-game lead over defending NFC South champ Tampa Bay. With games the next two weeks at the Panthers and back home for the Bucs, should the Saints somehow manage to win one or both of those ...
Put it this way: Acclaimed director Spike Lee watched the game from the Saints' sideline. Not even he could write a better script than this: New Orleans coming home and delivering, in resounding fashion no less, what many would consider, all things considered, the most significant victory in the team's 39-year history.
"We had to win that football game," Saints receiver Joe Horn said. "If we would have lost, I'm sure [the fans] would have still been proud of us, they would have still been happy because this organization is still in New Orleans. I'm sure in their minds they would have thought, 'We could have lost the Saints and the Superdome.' With the Superdome being opened, Monday Night Football, and their team coming back -- whether we would have won that game or not, I think the fans would have still been happy. But for us as players, we wanted to win to put that icing on the cake."
Appropriately, the Saints presented the game ball to the city. Dallas Mavericks head coach and native New Orleanian Avery Johnson, who spoke to the team during training camp and even had a locker set aside for him in the locker room, accepted on the city's behalf.
"This night belongs to the city, the state of Louisiana, and everyone in the Gulf South," Payton said.
The game, from start to finish, belonged to the Saints.