The New Orleans Saints' three-game road to Super Bowl glory consists of three parts, like the classic magic trick of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece movie:
The pledge is everything the Saints have accomplished to this point. The 13-3 regular season. The No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and the home-field advantage to which it is attached. Even the 33-14 season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers, embarrassing to a degree perhaps, but a meaningful chess piece to sacrifice in order to properly align everything for the serious game(s) to come.
The Saints are as healthy as they can expect to be after five months of hand-to-hand grappling with other teams going back to the preseason. They are experienced, tempered by a hard and stinging exit from last year’s playoffs at the hand of the Minnesota Vikings. They are properly motivated — as proof of that we give you Exhibit A: Sean Payton’s wheelbarrow full of cash representing each Super Bowl-winning player’s share of the spoils ($201,000) crowned by the Saints’ first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But the Saints are at this point made up of more than magic tricks and psychological stunts. They are confident, confident that they are the best team still alive in the NFL playoffs. Confident that they will prove it over the next month of epic tests.
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“We always expect to play our best,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We always expect to go out and execute to perfection. So let’s go do it.”
The turn is the playoffs themselves, the unpredictable and capricious tournament that demands so much from the so-called “best team” and offers so little in terms of guarantees.
For all the success and meticulous planning, there is always something that can go awry. The football, that quirky oblate spheroid, does not always bounce the way it is expected to and it does not always travel on the intended path of flight. Just ask the Ravens' Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, who has been standing there in Baltimore since October with his eyes popping out like champagne corks wondering how his extra-point try took that shocking wide-right turn against the Saints.
The Saints have done all they can to minimize the fickle variables. But the simple truth is No. 1 teams lose, especially in the NFL playoffs, and it is not always talent and coaching but momentum and good fortune that count the most.
The Philadelphia Eagles have incredibly managed to meld both since getting demolished 48-7 by the Saints in Week 11. The reigning Super Bowl champs were left for dead playoff-wise after that defeat dropped the Eagles to 4-6. But they've won five of their past six, got a little help in the form of a season-ending Minnesota Vikings defeat, and here they still are, a tipped and properly iced Cody Parkey field goal in Chicago having kept their postseason going with something starting to resemble the destiny of last year’s championship march.
Which brings us to the prestige of the Super Bowl itself.
The Saints have known Super Bowl championship success, of course, but truth to tell it is the underdog’s role, the Eagles role, that suits New Orleans best. It's an unnatural thing to be the No. 1, the favorite, the all-eyes-on-us team. The glory is intoxicating, especially for the Saints and their devoted followers who have dreams of not only winning a second Super Bowl in a decade but doing so with a Choppa-style dance on the middle of the hated Atlanta Falcons home field, site of this year’s super game.
But the pressure is enormous, and sometimes impossible to defeat. No. 1 going in does not always wind up No. 1 at the back end. Just ask this year’s Alabama team. Just ask last year’s New England Patriots, who lost to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII (though admittedly both teams were No. 1 seeds). More to the point, ask the five No. 1 seeds since the Saints won their Super Bowl who got one-and-doned by their opening playoff opponent.
Not many expect that to happen to the Saints. But they do expect the Eagles to give much better accounting of themselves than they did in November in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when the Saints pulverized them to a fine powder. Simple pride should take care of that much.
When it comes to custom cleats, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas clearly has the hook up.
Now it is up to them to capture the prestige of this season.
Four-hundred-and seventy miles from New Orleans to Atlanta.
Two hundred and one thousand dollars.
One big Tiffany-designed silver trophy.
Let the games begin.