Saints providing nice boost to New Orleans
By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton was the toast of New Orleans even before the Saints' storybook run to the NFC championship game in his first season as a head coach.
Fans were happy to have their team back and eager to embrace a coach who wanted to be a part of the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina left entire neighborhoods in a state of lifeless, sagging, water-logged ruin.
Four years later, evidence of the widespread devastation is dwindling. Shattered windows and ripped up roofs have been replaced. Homes have been rebuilt. Long rows of flooded cars and countless fetid debris piles are gone from most of the city.
The Louisiana Superdome — a hot spot of sweltering, rancid misery for thousands who took shelter there during Katrina — is getting new champagne-colored siding to replace panels faded gray by decades of sun and dented by projectiles launched by the storm's fierce winds.
Today, when the Arizona Cardinals visit for the divisional round of the playoffs, the dome will be a place countless thousands want to be, a place where home fans now gather to simultaneously celebrate their solidarity during the recovery and the greatness exhibited by Drew Brees and the rest of Payton's league-leading offense.
Expectations have gone up — a lot — and that's precisely what Payton envisioned when he took the job. Although New Orleans won a franchise-record 13 games this season, it will mean little if they flop in the playoffs.
"In the very beginning, when we got here, you're wanting to raise the expectation level and how we perform, and I think that when you get to where we're at now in the postseason, this is a place that we aspire to be every year," Payton said.
As fate would have it, the Saints (13-3) open the seventh postseason in franchise history against the Cardinals (11-6), another club long known for ineptitude but recently transformed into a respected contender.
One season ago, Arizona went where the Saints never have — the Super Bowl — and nearly upset the Pittsburgh Steelers.
COWBOYS EXPECT NOISY RECEPTION
Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking remembers the loudest game of his career coming in Minnesota's Metrodome.
And he remembers winning it — a victory that sent his team, the Atlanta Falcons, to the Super Bowl in 1998.
Brooking also remembers that the loudest game Dallas played this year was indoors, at New Orleans' Superdome.
He remembers winning that one, too.
So as the Cowboys prepare for a trip to Minnesota for a second-round playoff game tomorrow, the message from the Dallas locker room is clear: Bring it on, Vikings fans; make all the noise y'all want.
"We have pretty good experience facing a hostile crowd," Brooking said. "The way you have to handle the situation is, obviously, you can't allow them to get the momentum going early in the game. You've got to go for their heart."