Loss hurts, but Saints know it's been a special year

Losing in the NFC Championship Game hurts, but the Saints know their season was a success on so many levels, writes Wayne Drehs.

Updated: January 22, 2007, 3:18 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- It only took about 15 minutes for New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton to dissect his team's 39-14 playoff loss to the Chicago Bears and convey what he, his team and all those fans back in the Bayou are feeling.

Yes, losing Sunday's NFC Championship Game to the Chicago Bears was painful. Yes, he wanted nothing more than to give fans in his beleaguered city two more weeks of living on a football high they never imagined possible. And yes, at the end of the day, Payton and his team felt this was a game they should have won.

Nick Laham/Getty ImagesIt was a hard loss for the Saints to handle, but it doesn't overshadow what their success meant to New Orleans.
But this was a franchise that had won two playoff games in its history, the second coming just last week. The Saints are young, relatively inexperienced and nobody -- themselves included -- thought they'd be here. And when the Saints consider the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina that still exists in certain New Orleans neighborhoods, it's hard for them to get too upset over a football game.

"This hurt we have," Payton said, "it will eventually go away. But there's a lot of pain for a lot of people in that city that won't go away anytime soon. It's disappointing that we won't be playing in this next game to give this city something else to look forward to. But we should hold our heads high."

The Saints gave credit where it was due, mainly to the vaunted Bears defense. But as they stood in their quiet locker room preparing for the long flight home, they lamented what might have been.

"Missed opportunities," said cornerback Jason Craft, shaking his head. "Missed opportunities."

At halftime, despite two turnovers, the Saints only trailed 16-7. And their one scoring drive, just before halftime, only took 70 seconds and brought an air of confidence to the locker room.

"We felt we were about to explode," Brees said.

Less than two minutes into the second half, Reggie Bush did just that, breaking free on a pass from Brees and outrunning All-Pro Brian Urlacher for an 88-yard touchdown. Before crossing the goal line, Bush pointed at the trailing Chicago linebacker before somersaulting into the end zone.

After the game, Bush said he didn't mean any disrespect and merely got caught up in the moment.

"I know I made a mistake. I apologized to my coach and my teammates," Bush said. "But I'm not going to kill myself over it."

It was easy to understand. With a little less than a half to play, momentum had shifted to the Saints and Soldier Field fell silent. After the Saints forced the Bears into a second consecutive three-and-out, Brees marched the league's top-ranked offense 56 yards to the Bears' 29, when his third-down pass to Devery Henderson fell short.

Billy Cundiff came on to attempt a 47-yard field goal that would have given the Saints a 17-16 lead, but it fell short. The Saints wouldn't threaten again.

"If we would have been able to score there, maybe the final outcome would have been different," Brees said.

The Saints then held the Bears to another three-and-out, but after Bears punter Brad Maynard booted a 51-yarder that rolled out of bounds at the 5-yard line, Brees was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, giving the Bears a safety, an 18-14 lead and momentum.

"We knew we were going to get another surge from them," Brees said, "But unfortunately, we couldn't counter with anything effective."

New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister said Brees' end zone pass had been intended for him, but he had picked up a late Bears blitzer, meaning Brees was without his safety valve in the flat.

"It was just a miscommunication," McAllister said.

From that point, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman found his rhythm, Chicago scored 23 unanswered points and the dream of the Saints playing in their first Super Bowl was dashed.

When Payton took the job last January, Aaron Brooks was quarterback, McAllister was coming off a torn ACL and the defense was 28th in the league in scoring. Bush was still in college, few had ever heard of Marques Colston and New Orleans was in danger of possibly losing its team.

Now, the Saints have Brees, who threw for more yards than any other quarterback this season. They have Bush, one of the most talented young weapons in the league. McAllister is again a 1,000-yard rusher, Colston is a gifted receiver and the Saints have the league's 12th-ranked scoring defense.

More important, the impact they've had on the psyche of Katrina victims is immeasurable. The Saints have given their fans something they never thought they'd feel about a professional football team they call their own.

Hope.

"It's been a special season," McAllister said. "Right now it stings because you lost. But after a couple weeks, you'll look back at the enthusiasm that our fans showed and the support they showed.

"We're a young team. We're going to continue to grow. We're going to continue to get better as a team. And hopefully, we'll be at this point again."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.