NEW ORLEANS – As I made my way from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to my hotel on Canal Street, winding past the clamor around the Superdome, one thing became increasingly clear, and it was best perfectly by my cabdriver, a man named Lionel Williams* who grew up here. I asked him when he could remember the town being as excited for a football game as it is for Monday’s Saints-Patriots.
“Never,” he said. “The Saints have never been this good! This is one of the biggest games the Saints have ever played. Let’s just say that. There’s a buzz like there hasn’t been before.”
It has to be tempting, for Patriots fans, to take games like Monday night’s for granted. The Patriots have played in lots of games with massive stakes – four Super Bowls, four conference championships, countless regular season games trying to keep streaks alive or stay undefeated. Just two weeks ago, they played a game hyped, justly or not, as the Game of the Decade.
These games are close to routine for the Patriots, like the garbage collector coming by Tuesday morning. These games are close to unimaginable for the Saints, like a comet darting across the sky.
The Saints are currently playing their 43d season as an NFL franchise. They are 272-375-5. They have played eight playoff games; they’ve won two. They are one of five teams never to play in a Super Bowl. As much as the game means to a Patriots fan, it means more to Saints fans. That’s not a slight, just a fact of the matter.
The city has responded accordingly. The anticipation for the first Saints game played in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, for wrenching and important civic reasons, rivaled the anticipation for this game. But this is obviously different, pure celebration.
When I walked off the plane, the baggage handler asked everyone who walked if they were going to the game. He reminded, with his thick patois, everyone else who was going to the game to wear all black.
One man explained he hoped his friend with season tickets would ask him along, but the price was too steep otherwise – scalpers are asking between $2,000 and $2,500 per ticket for average seats, he said. He got his bag, the handler gave him a fist bump and said, “Who dat?”
By Monday night, the city will be a carnival. Right now, Grambling (alma mater of Gerald Williams!) and Southern are playing the Bayou Classic, and thousands of fans made the yearly pilgrimage for football and the great bands. The party will continue until Monday.
The feeling has transferred to the players. Saints safety Darren Sharper said earlier this week he worried that fans would wear themselves by game time.
“I could say the chance and likelihood of that would have to be … 100 percent,” Sharper said.
The Saints have never 10-0 before, and the people here act like it.
"It's going be loud," said the guy who couldn't afford a scalped ticket. "I don't care if we're losing in the third quarter. Those people aren't going to stop yelling."