NEW ORLEANS -- Just 90 seconds into a game that was a horrific year in the making, the New Orleans Saints flopped on a ball in the end zone -- and the party was on.
The defense beat up Michael Vick. Tom Benson danced off the field with his parasol. Even "The Superdome Special" worked to perfection.
The Saints are home again.
In an earsplitting return to their rebuilt stadium, the Saints gave the Big Easy something to cheer about -- an undefeated football team that made it look easy with a 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
This one couldn't have been scripted any better for a team that spent all of last season on the road, and it couldn't have come at a better time for a city that is still struggling to overcome the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"From the moment I signed with the Saints, I was looking forward to this," said quarterback Drew Brees, who joined New Orleans during the offseason. "It was a great night. It's something we'll never forget."
After a Super Bowl-like pregame show that included a performance by supergroups U2 and Green Day, the Saints wasted no time turning their welcome-home party into Mardi Gras: The Falcons' first drive went three-and-out, and special teams demon Steve Gleason sliced through the middle of the Atlanta line to smother Michael Koenen's punt.
The ball skidded across the goal line, where Curtis Deloatch fell on it for a touchdown -- the first given up by the Falcons this season. Just like that, Saints sent an emphatic message to the NFL and the entire country: New Orleans is open for business.
DeLoatch ran over to the stands and pointed at the crowd of 70,003, as if to say, "Take that, Katrina!" Undoubtedly, many more were cheering around this still-recovering city, some of them vowing to set up televisions outside government-issued trailers that pass for homes more than a year after the storm blew ashore, the levees broke and the water poured through.
"That set the tone," Brees said. "That's when we all knew. This was our day, our night."
Benson, the Saints' once-reviled owner, broke out his parasol when it was over, bouncing off the field to "When The Saints Go Marching In" and reveling in the cheers of a fan base that feared he would take their team away.
The Saints dedicated a game ball to the entire city.
"It meant a lot to them when the Saints didn't leave in their time of need," rookie Reggie Bush said. "When the people of New Orleans needed something to look to for confidence and something to be proud of, they looked to the Saints."
The Saints (3-0) poured it on against the Falcons (2-1), who fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter and never recovered. Devery Henderson scored New Orleans' second TD on an 11-yard double-reverse, taking a handoff from Bush and cutting inside the pylon with help from a gutsy block by quarterback Drew Brees.
How could that play not work? When working on it in practice, the Saints dubbed their bit of chicanery "The Superdome Special."
John Carney kicked two field goals in the second period, including a 51-yarder that cleared the crossbar as time ran out. The Saints trotted to the locker room with a 20-3 lead and a rousing ovation ringing in their ears. The Falcons straggled off in the opposite direction, as if they already knew this wasn't going to be their night.