Dome housing a winner again

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 1, 2009

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The Louisiana Superdome has proven to be a memorable venue since it first opened its doors in 1975.

It’s where the 2001 Patriots proved anything is possible. It’s where Michael Jordan, then a University of North Carolina freshman, first proved he was something special. It’s where Fab Five forward Chris Webber proved he couldn’t remember how many timeouts Michigan had. It’s where Sugar Ray Leonard proved he could make Roberto Duran say, “No mas.’’

The building proved its worth during Hurricane Katrina, acting as a supersized sanctuary and storm shelter.

Once again, the Superdome served as a proving ground last night because the Patriots and Saints had a lot to prove - to themselves and to the rest of the NFL.

Despite the Saints’ 10-0 record and pursuit of the Patriots’ 2007 perfect regular season and marks for points in a season and touchdowns, it’s difficult to discern which team needed this game more. Sitting at 7-3, the Patriots had beaten just two teams (Atlanta and Baltimore, both 6-5) that currently have a winning record. They were lacking a true road win and a season-defining victory.

The Saints also were searching for validation, wanting to prove their record is not a mirage, that their gaudy numbers really do add up to being one of the NFL’s best teams. While they’ve been the most impressive team thus far, leading the league in points per game (36.9), total offense (420.5 yards) and takeaways (29) entering last night’s game, there is a sense in some circles that New Orleans is merely a good team, not a great one.

Don’t tell that to Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“They’re as good as anybody we’ve faced,’’ Belichick told the New Orleans media last week. “There are no weaknesses. The players are good. The coaches are good. The schemes are difficult. They’re playing at home. It’s Monday night. There will be a lot of energy in the dome. We know we have our work cut out for us.’’

When it comes to NFL credibility, New Orleans is nouveau riche and the Patriots are old money. A win over the Patriots would substantiate the Saints’ arrival among the NFL elite.

The Patriots’ retooled defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed (16.4) and sixth in pass defense, yet there are still doubts about their ability to shut down a high-powered offense and come up with the big stop when it really counts. Shutting down Saints quarterback Drew Brees would prove their point, emphatically and in front of a national television audience.

“This game, everybody is going to be watching us. This is going to be the game to make a stand,’’ said Patriots cornerback Jonathan Wilhite.

Brees, who since 2006 leads the NFL in passing attempts (2,161), completions (1,427), and yards (16,656) and is tied with Peyton Manning in touchdown passes (110), wants to prove that he belongs in the discourse of best QB in the NFL. What better way to do that than by lighting up Brady’s team like Bourbon Street?

Saints coach Sean Payton has made no secret of the fact that the Patriots are the paragon the Saints look to emulate. A win would prove that the Saints are now peers.

Conversely, the Patriots wanted to prove that they can win a real road game and beat a fellow Super Bowl contender. The Patriots will have three more shots at a real road win, even if they leave the Crescent City crestfallen, like how they exited Indianapolis, but this was their last shot at a statement victory because no remaining team on the schedule carries the cachet of the Saints.

The Patriots wanted to prove that the Indianapolis loss and their well-documented inability to execute in the second half, particularly on the road (they were shut out against the Jets and Broncos, and only scored 10 points at Indy) are flukes, just like at the beginning of the season when it took until the sixth game to have a rush of 20 yards or more and a pass play of at least 40 yards.

The Saints were out to prove that they have a better finishing kick than Usain Bolt, outscoring their opponents, 188-78, in the second half.

Only one was going to be true.

For a few hours last night, Louisiana, and not Missouri, was the Show Me State.

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