It had been a long time coming for the New Orleans Saints. They were a long-suffering franchise who had never even made a Super Bowl and only rarely been a legitimate contender. Their home city was just three years removed from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The 2009 NFL season was their moment. The Saints finally reached the top.
Drew Brees was at the helm of the most potent offense in the league. The great quarterback completed 71 percent of his passes and threw 34 touchdowns. Marques Colston was a 1,000-yard receiver. New Orleans had an All-Pro talent up front in guard Jahri Evans. While the defense had problems, ranking 20th in the league in points allowed, they still had playmakers. Will Smith recorded 13 sacks and All-Pro safety Darren Sharper intercepted nine passes.
The Saints made a big early statement in blowing out the Philadelphia Eagles 48-22. They beat another eventual playoff team in the New York Jets, 24-10. In November, they won a couple big Monday Night games. A 35-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons helped open up the NFC South race. And a 38-17 blistering of the New England Patriots sent another loud message.
New Orleans won their first 13 games, before a Saturday night loss to a good Dallas Cowboys team ended the bid for perfection. The Saints then dropped two more games, but still closed the year as the #1 seed in the NFC.
The Indianapolis Colts made their own run at an undefeated season. With another MVP year from Peyton Manning, Indianapolis won their first 14 games. Peyton did his damage throwing to All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark, and wide receiver Reggie Wayne, each of whom caught 100 balls. Defensive end Dwight Freeney was another All-Pro. A balanced Colt team was in the top quarter of the league for both offense and defense.
Indy won big games on prime-time, taking out Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals 31-10 on a Sunday night in September. Peyton won a thrilling 35-34 duel with Tom Brady and the Patriots on a November Sunday Night. Indy ran away with the #1 seed in the AFC, and then basically took the final two weeks off, voluntarily forgoing their bid at history. They had their eye on winning the Super Bowl.
2009 was a historic year in the NFC North. Brett Favre returned to the division to play for the Minnesota Vikings. His old franchise, the Green Bay Packers, saw Aaron Rodgers really come into his own in his second season. These two quarterbacks, linked by history from their time in Green Bay, had one season where their excellence overlapped against each other.
At the age of 40, Favre was simply brilliant, with a 33-7 TD/INT ratio. His favorite target was Sidney Rice, who racked up over 1,300 yards receiving. Adrian Peterson was one of the league’s best running backs, rushing for nearly 1,400 yards behind a line that included All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. The Viking offense was second in the league for points scored. The defense, led by All-Pro defensive lineman Jared Allen and Kevin Wiliams ranked 10th.
Rodgers racked up a 30-7 TD/INT ratio, with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Ryan Grant ran for over 1,200 yards. Green Bay’s offense was #3 in the NFL for points scored. The defense had playmakers in Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Nick Collins, ranking seventh for points allowed.
The Vikings and Packers were both playoff teams and the NFC North came down to their two head-to-head games. In a high-profile Monday Night game in early October, Minnesota won the first matchup 30-23. And in November, Favre delivered a 38-26 win in his return to Lambeau Field. The Vikings finished 12-4, took home the 2-seed and got a first-round bye. The Packers were the 5-seed.
Another tight division race between two playoff-bound opponents took place in the NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys did it with defense. All-Pro performers in Jay Ratliff on the interior and DeMarcus Ware on the edge led the league’s second-ranked unit. Tony Romo had a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, throwing to tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin.
Philadelphia had a big-play passing game, with Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb going up top to speedy Desean Jackson, underneath to tight end Brent Celek, and blending in versatile running back LeSean McCoy. Leonard Weaver did the gritty work at fullback and picked up All-Pro honors for his efforts. The Eagles had a top-5 offense that covered for a mediocre defense.
The first Cowboys-Eagles game was a Sunday Night in November, and Dallas won it 20-16. The rematch was the season finale. It was winner-take-all for the division title in the late Sunday afternoon time slot. Both teams knew they would be playing each other in the wild-card round. Dallas won 24-0 and earned the right to host the 3-6 game in the NFC bracket.
Arizona had made a surprise run to the Super Bowl in 2008, and the Cardinals filled out the NFC field. Warner, now 38-years-old, was throwing to 1,000-yard receivers in the great Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Adrian Wilson was one of the league’s top safeties. Arizona got a notable 30-17 win over Minnesota on Sunday Night in December, and otherwise just cruised through a bad NFC West to a 10-6 record and the 4-seed.
The return of Tom Brady was one of the big stories in the run-up to the 2009 NFL season. Brady had been injured in Week 1 of 2008 and missed virtually the entire year. Would his torn knee have recovered? Was he finished? Brady answered those questions by delivering a Pro Bowl year and leading the sixth-ranked offense in the league. Wes Welker was an All-Pro, catching 123 passes for over 1,300 yards. Randy Moss was the big-play target, with over 1,200 yards. A top-5 defense was led by strong safety Brandon Meriweather.
New York saw the arrival of Rex Ryan to coach the Jets. The former defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, Rex immediately made his mark on the Big Apple. A defense led by the great corner, Darrelle Revis, was the NFL’s best. Thomas Jones ran for over 1,400 yards behind All-Pro center Nick Mangold. The Jets won the first head-to-head battle over the Patriots, taking a 16-9 decision in Week 2.
But New England bounced back. In October, they knocked off Baltimore, and hung a 59-0 devastation on the Tennessee Titans. The Patriots took the rematch from the Jets, 31-14 in November. New England finished 10-6, took home the division and held the 4-seed.
New York came down the stretch needing to win their final two games. Fortune smiled on the Jets—their final two games were against the Colts and the playoff-bound Cincinnati Bengals. Neither team had anything to play for. New York took advantage, beating Indy, then blowing out Cincinnati 37-0 on the final Sunday Night game to punch their ticket as the 6-seed.
The San Diego Chargers ran away with the AFC West. Philip Rivers posted a 28/9 TD-INT ratio and averaged 8.8 yards-per-attempt. Tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Vincent Jackson were the prime targets, each making the Pro Bowl. The Bolts were fourth in the league for scoring offense, they had the game’s best kicker in Nate Kaeding, and the 11th-ranked defense was good enough to win.
San Diego surged in November and December. They beat Philadelphia and Dallas. They knocked off Cincinnati. On Christmas Night, they crushed a hot Tennessee Titans team that was trying to make a comeback surge to the playoffs. The Chargers finished 13-3, got a first-round bye as the 2-seed and, with a track record of playoff success against Indianapolis, were seen as a prime contender to win it all.
Cincinnati led the way in a competitive AFC North, narrowly outpacing the division’s more traditional powers in Baltimore and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Bengal head coach Marvin Lewis produced the NFL’s sixth-ranked scoring defense without the benefit of any real notable talent. Cedric Benson ran for over 1,200 yards. Cincinnati won all four games over Baltimore and Pittsburgh by a combined total of 22 points. The Bengals finished 10-6 and went in as the 3-seed.
All-Pro inside linebacker Ray Lewis led up a vintage Ravens defense. Baltimore ran the ball well, with Ray Rice rolling up over 1,300 yards. The Ravens beat the Chargers 31-26 in September and won a crucial 20-17 thriller over the Steelers on the Sunday Night after Thanksgiving. That result was the difference in the race for the playoffs. Both teams finished 9-7. Pittsburgh was eliminated when the Jets won that final Sunday Night game in Cincy. Baltimore got the 5-seed.
Saturday’s wild-card games were both rematches of regular season finales. The Jets got the playoffs underway by showing they didn’t need the help of the Bengals resting their starters in Week 17. New York beat Cincinnati 24-14. Dallas continued their two-week domination of Philadelphia that night, with a 34-14 blowout.
The run of blowouts continued on Sunday afternoon. Ray Rice opened the Baltimore-New England game by taking the first snap to the house. The Ravens jumped all over the Patriots early and often in a 33-14 rout.
Finally, in the weekend’s final game, fans got a good one. A desert shootout took place between Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner. The Cardinals and Packers were tied 45-45 and went to overtime. Ironically, this game would end with a defensive play. Arizona’s Karlos Dansby strip-sacked Rodgers and took the ball to the house from 17 yards out. The Cardinals won it 51-45.
Divisional Round weekend followed a similar pattern. New Orleans got it rolling by hammering Arizona 45-14. Indianapolis took apart Baltimore 20-3. An early Sunday afternoon game that was expected to be close instead turned into a rout—Minnesota crushed Dallas 34-3. And the finale on late Sunday afternoon got interesting.
The red-hot Chargers were slowed down by Ryan’s great Jet defense. New York controlled the line of scrimmage, took the game over in the fourth quarter and pulled the upset, 17-14.
For most of the first half of the AFC Championship Game, the Jets looked ready to make this magic ride continue. They jumped out on top of Indianapolis 17-6. But Peyton rallied his team with a touchdown just before halftime, and the Colts took over the second half. A 30-17 win sent Indy on to go for their second Super Bowl title in four years.
A postseason that had been largely drama-free got more than its share of excitement in the NFC Championship Game that night. New Orleans and Minnesota played an extraordinary game. Brees and Favre kept trading blows. The Saints were putting a beating on Favre—so much so that this game would be the one cited when the franchise was investigated for “Bounty Gate” three years later. But in a tie game, 28-28, it was Favre who appeared poised to pull this one out.
Minnesota was on the outer edge of field goal range. A motion penalty pushed them back. Then Favre rolled out. He forced a throw back to the middle of the field. It was intercepted by Tracey Porter. The Saints had new life. The game went to overtime. New Orleans won the coin toss, drove for a field goal and that was the ballgame. If it were any consolation for the Vikes (and it probably wasn’t), this game was the last time in the playoffs where one team could simply kick a field goal in overtime without the opponent ever seeing the ball.
1-seeds were in the Super Bowl. Indianapolis was the favorite, and they jumped out to a 10-0 lead. New Orleans chipped their way back into it with a couple field goals. Then they opened the second half with the play this game is remembered for—a successful onside kick. The momentum turned and the Saints took the lead. The Colts bounced back, and still held a 17-16 lead into the fourth quarter.
With five minutes to go, Brees led a touchdown drive and New Orleans was up 24-17. Peyton was leading Indy right back down the field. Time for another big Porter interception. He picked Manning and went 74 yards to the house. The game was all but over. With a 31-17 win, the New Orleans Saints were finally the champions of the NFL.