Saints, Benson will be dancing at end of night

Tom Benson couldn't help himself.

The 82-year-old Saints owner known for his celebratory "Benson Boogie" was strolling through an NFL party Friday night as the Pointer Sisters sang on stage. When the hit "I'm So Excited" blared through the speakers, Benson got lost in the beat and began flashing moves you'd see in a conga line.

After Super Bowl XLIV, I get the feeling Benson will be dancing on air all the way back to the Bayou.

The good vibes are everywhere surrounding Benson's team. This is the city where NFL owners awarded New Orleans the hosting rights to the Super Bowl in 2013.

Nine months later, the Saints have returned to compete for their first NFL championship.

Along the way, New Orleans has become the sentimental favorite entering Sunday's game against Indianapolis at Sun Life Stadium. This team has struck a chord with non-Saints fans because of what it has meant to New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Saints were once hopeless, needing 24 seasons to win their first playoff game. They now provide hope to a region still rebuilding four-and-a-half years after catastrophic damage.

"There's a feeling that exists really throughout the course of the players' time here that, 'This is pretty important to everyone,' " Saints coach Sean Payton said. "The fans remind us daily how important it is to them."

There's no need for reminders about the importance of Sunday's contest. While the Colts won a Super Bowl here four years ago, most Saints - including stars like quarterback Drew Brees - have never played on such a large stage.

But these Saints haven't gotten lost in the moment yet. New Orleans won both of its most high-profile regular season games against the New York Giants and New England by a combined score of 86-44.

"Sure, there's going to be nerves," said Payton, the offensive coordinator on the 2000 New York Giants squad that reached Super Bowl XXXV. "Guys are going to be wound up. But we're going to manage that fine."

The next trick is managing the Colts. New Orleans should receive a significant boost with Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney struggling with an ankle injury. Freeney hasn't practiced all week while rehabilitating. If he is able to play, there are still serious doubts about how effective a speed-rusher like Freeney can be even in a limited role on passing downs. The Colts may now be forced to blitz more. That could be disastrous against a pinpoint passer like Brees if the extra pressure doesn't work.

The Saints' defense faces its own daunting challenge: Stopping Peyton Manning. The Colts quarterback won his NFL-record fourth Most Valuable Player award during the regular season and looked just as sharp in the playoffs. But the Saints aren't intimidated. After all, they've battered two other future Hall of Fame quarterbacks - Arizona's Kurt Warner and Minnesota's Brett Favre - in postseason victories.

"If you're able to get to the quarterback, disrupt his timing, knock him around a little bit, you might get a chance to trick him or make a play off him because he's still human," Saints safety Darren Sharper said. "As he gets hit and hit and hit, it will start to change some of your decision making. If we can get to him, we think we can make some chances to get turnovers."

On paper, Manning gives Indianapolis an edge. Oddsmakers feel the same way. They've installed the Colts as five-point favorites.

But there's something to be said for mojo. The Saints have it in abundance.

Get the music ready for Benson and Co. New Orleans 30, Indianapolis 27.