Saints marching in to den of hype
NEW ORLEANS - The game is so big, it'll require two stadiums. Two NFL commissioners will be there. Two internationally renowned rock bands will play in the Louisiana Superdome shortly before kickoff.
And two 2-0 teams will take the field while nearly 70,000 fans purge a year of post-Katrina frustration with howls almost loud enough to blow the dome's new galvanized steel roof right off.
Saints players and coaches are well aware of all this, and they're trying not to think about it too much.
"The evening's only special if you win it," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We're seeing a good team come in here in Atlanta. ... We're going to have to have a good week of practice, and all the other stuff is stuff that we can't control and we just want to make sure it doesn't become a distraction."
Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said more than 500 credentials have been issued to media outlets from around the world — from Sky Sports to Al-Jazeera — and that ESPN is sending a crew of several hundred to build up it's coverage of the "Monday Night Football" telecast.
Because the dome is sold out for the season, there's no place in the stands to set up an overflow press box as has been done in past Super Bowls, so a couple hundred media members will have to work out of the adjacent New Orleans Arena and watch the game on TV.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who played a leading role in making this game happen when New Orleans' future in the NFL seemed in doubt after the storm, is expected to attend, along with his successor, Roger Goodell.
U2 and Green Day will play during pregame ceremonies. Former President George H.W. Bush is slated for the coin flip, although he may not receive quite the welcome of another Bush — the running back named Reggie, who'll be making his home debut in the refurbished dome.
This is a tough ticket. On the Saints' Web site, season ticket holders who have decided to resell their tickets on a team-approved exchange program are asking $690 for upper deck seats, more for premium seats.
"Could this game be any more hyped up or bigger than it already is?" Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We all know what it is, but the way I'm approaching this week is: It's a football game and we need to win it. That's it."
While opening 2-0 on the road is always an accomplishment in the NFL — and something the Saints have never done since being founded in 1967 — the teams they beat this month are winless. Those games were played in pleasant late-summer weather in Cleveland and Green Bay and the results remained in doubt until past the two-minute warning.
Atlanta is a regional rival that has long given the Saints fits. Many in New Orleans remember well that the Saints' worst loss ever, 62-7 in 1973, came at home at the hands of the Falcons.
And Atlanta appears to be the stronger of the two teams this year. In games against Carolina and Tampa Bay, the Falcons have yet to allow a touchdown while outscoring their opponents 34-9.
With a strong offensive line and quarterback Michael Vick always a threat to run, Atlanta has rushed for 558 yards.
"This is a respected team we're playing," said Saints receiver Joe Horn, long a crowd favorite in the Superdome both for his play on the field and his outgoing manner off it.
Horn remembers well what the dome was like on its best days, and he anticipates a spine-tingling scene when the fans welcome back the team that wears their city's symbol, the fleur-de-lis, on its gold helmets.
"Once I get in there, I'm sure there'll be some emotions flowing, but mentally you have to be prepared to play the football game," Horn said. "If the emotions can make you focus more, it will help you, but sometimes heartfelt emotions can keep you away from having your mental edge, sharpness. I hope the emotions that flow make us focus more on the game and the job at hand."
Brees has never played in the Superdome. Still, he has immersed himself in the local culture since moving here this year, buying an historic house near Tulane University, dining at renowned restaurants and even taking a ghost tour in the French Quarter.
So while he preaches the need to focus on the Falcons, he can only hold out so long before gushing about the larger, transcendent nature of Monday night's game. "It's huge — just to show that this city is very much alive and that people are excited to be here and there's no doubt in their mind that this city's going to come back better than ever," Brees said. "It's just even more motivation for people to bring back tourism and come down here and spend money here and the government and the NFL to put money in this region, because it's such a special place."
~ A man's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink~