MIAMI — The New Orleans Saints turned the Super Bowl's postgame celebration into something out of the French Quarter.
From the trophy podium on the field, Drew Brees blew kisses and caught confetti raining down as Dr. John and Professor Longhair blared from the stadium speakers. Sean Payton hung over the railing clapping and shouting down to the crowd as if he were rolling on a Mardi Gras float, then waved a newspaper with the banner headline "WORLD CHAMPS."
Who are the champions? The New Orleans Saints, dat's who.
The Saints overcame an early 10-point deficit, pulled off a risky onside kick and won their first NFL title by beating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 Sunday night. Brees tied a Super Bowl record for completions and was voted the game's MVP, while the Saints held Peyton Manning to a single score in the final three quarters, intercepting him for a touchdown that sealed the victory.
New Orleans knows how to celebrate, but for the beleaguered city and its long-bedraggled NFL franchise, the championship touched off a new kind of joy.
"Four years ago, who ever thought this would be happening when 85 percent of the city was under water?" Brees said. "Most people left not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back. We just all looked at one another and said, `We are going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.' This is the culmination in all that belief."
Nearly an hour after the game, Saints rooters kept chanting their rally cry, Who Dat? One player climbed into the stands, others tossed their sweaty padding to souvenir seekers, and coach Payton held up the Lombardi Trophy so fans along the railing could touch it.
"I just wish we could split it up in a lot of little pieces," Payton said.
With the city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, an NFL title is sure to accelerate the healing. It was the Saints' first appearance in a Super Bowl, and few outside of Louisiana foresaw a victory, with Indy a 5-point favorite.
"We really felt as underdogs we had the better team," Payton said. "To be in that position where maybe a lot of people were picking against us, we liked the spot we were in."
The Saints weren't thrilled to fall behind 10-0. Manning directed an early 96-yard touchdown drive that tied a Super Bowl record, and when New Orleans managed only one first down on its first two possessions, a blowout seemed possible.
Instead, the Saints mounted a comeback to match the largest in Super Bowl history, and the onside kick turned the tide. The last chord of "Won't Get Fooled Again" from the Who's halftime show had barely faded when the Colts got fooled.
"That really becomes like a turnover," Payton said. "We knew we were going to call it at some point. At halftime I told them, `We're going to open up the second half with this. Let's go make a play.'"
The Saints had spotted a flaw in the Colts' alignment, but they needed for kicker Thomas Morstead to put the ball in play properly.
"I was terrified and excited at the same time, because I knew we could do it if I executed it," Morstead said.
The Saints' Chris Reis emerged from a huge scrum with the ball, and six plays later Brees' 16-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas gave them a 13-10 lead.
Manning and the Colts answered with a 76-yard touchdown drive, so the Saints had to rally again. Brees threw for another score, a 2-yarder to Jeremy Shockey, and this time they were ahead to stay, 24-17.
With barely three minutes left, the Colts' last chance was for Manning to make an open-field tackle, and that wasn't going to happen. Tracy Porter returned an interception 74 yards for the clinching score, with Manning spinning awkwardly to the turf at midfield in his vain attempt to stop the score.
An anticipated shootout between the NFL's two highest-scoring offenses never materialized. Manning finished 31 for 45 for 333 yards, and the Colts outgained the Saints by 100 yards. But Indy scored on only one of its final six possessions against a Saints defense that ranked 25th during the regular season.
"We probably never got into a great rhythm," Manning said.
The Colts came up shy in a bid for their second NFL title in four seasons. Four-time NFL MVP Manning used the word "disappointing" at least 10 times in his postgame interview session.
But the New Orleans native could appreciate what the result meant to Louisiana.
"I certainly know how it was three years ago when we won," Manning said. "I know the people of New Orleans and the Saints have that same feeling right now."
Garrett Hartley, hero of the NFC title game with his overtime field goal, made kicks of 46, 44 and 47 yards to keep the Saints close, and Brees put them over the hump. He went 32 for 39 for 288 yards and two scores, and the Saints scored on five of six possessions as the game swung their way.
"We just believed in ourselves, and we knew that we had an entire city and maybe an entire country behind us," Brees said.
Long derided as the Aints for their futility, the Saints became nomads after Katrina in 2005. The NFL refused to abandon the city, and the Saints won the NFC South in 2006, their first season with Brees and Payton.
This winter they swept three postseason games after winning only two in the previous 42 years.
Bon temps roulez.
"This championship is for you, New Orleans," Brees said.