Sports

City of New Orleans, Saints a perfect fit

I don't know if teams take on the characteristics of the cities they represent, or if we move things around so it seems as if they do.

But at the moment, nobody fits a city as well as the Saints fit New Orleans.

The beauty of New Orleans is not Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is drunken tourists throwing beads.

The beauty of New Orleans is, whether you arrive by plane or over a long suspension bridge, you might as well be on another planet. The city is more separate and apart than any I know.

So is its football team.

The Saints, who play Carolina Sunday at the Louisiana Superdome, send out five wide receivers on nearly every play. They have tough running backs and Cirque du Soleil tailback Reggie Bush, a defense that outscores some offenses and an attack so fresh the plays could be drawn in the mud.

They also have quarterback Drew Brees.

Some athletes are strikingly bigger in person than they are on TV. Muhammad Ali is one. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning is another.

I talked to Brees at the Super Bowl a few years ago, and he was strikingly smaller. Except for the absence of food stains on his shirt, he would not stand out in a group of sportswriters.

Brees reminds me of another undersized athlete, Phoenix point guard Steve Nash. Nash's teammates run relentlessly because they know if they get open, he'll find them. Brees' receivers run their routes the same way.

The Saints have scored an NFL-high 273 points. Minnesota is second with 244 and the New York Giants third with 212. The Vikings and Giants have played eight games, the Saints seven.

The Saints average 38 points a game at home. Imagine that, 38. On the road they average 40.

The city sees itself, justifiably, as tough, a survivor. Brees is, too. The quarterback has taken some shots, although at the Superdome that's not uncommon. Before my first game, I was approached in a parking deck by a woman dressed as if she were competing in a beauty pageant selling an array of brightly colored shots.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a column two days ago about the Saints going undefeated. (Although the schedule is friendly, the Saints still have to play New England and Dallas at home and Atlanta on the road.)

If the Panthers had won their first seven games, you think the Observer would run a column the first week of November about them going undefeated?

Of course not. We would have run the story a month ago.

I've been to New Orleans 11 times. Buildings look different and food tastes different and even if you're one of those sad souls who spends his spare time writing on message boards, you would grasp that life is to be enjoyed. Although you can't always tell where the music comes from, it seldom stops.

Think of a suburban mall. Once inside, you could be anywhere.

New Orleans is the opposite. Walk along the Mississippi River, through the French quarter, in the Garden District and on Magazine Street, and you know exactly where you are.

The Saints do. After seven games, they are football's best team.

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