METAIRIE, La. -- Around 3:30 p.m., the quarter appeared, and the crowd around his locker began to stir. They had been waiting for 15, 20 minutes, entertained mostly by a trio of Saints engaged in a post-basketball shootout on the miniature rim in the center of the room. His stride was measured and purposeful in an athletic sort of way, his lips straight, his eyes angled down at the steps he had yet to take. He wore gym shorts and a T-Shirt and black wrist bands.
As he approached, the crowd parted to make way.
“Hang on,” Drew Brees said as he walked past them. “I’m going to wash my hands.”
This time of year, you hear a lot of talk about the importance of maintaining one’s routine, and there’s apparently no exception for personal care. Brees himself would opine on the subject a few minutes later. Forget about the subplots, and the headlines, and the do-or-die stakes. When the Eagles arrive in the Super Dome on Sunday, it’s just like any other game.
Which is why the thing that had everybody buzzing on Wednesday was curious indeed. Apparently, the previous afternoon, the Saints were gathered in the locker room when Sean Payton entered the room while pushing a cart accompanied by four armed guards. Atop the cart was the Lombardi Trophy, along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash that each player would receive in way of bonus money with a Super Bowl win.
“I want it just like that,” running back Mark Ingram joked. “I want them to come to my house: Lombardi, a glass box of cash, my ring, all that. I want the same presentation. I don’t want no direct deposit. I want all my cash. I want my cash coming to the crib looking just like they had it the other day. . .It was sweet. It was pretty sweet.”
The curious part is that this isn’t normally the sort of thing that a team like the Saints would want out in the open for public consumption. And, judging by the way Brees paused when first asked about the story, maybe it wasn’t. It’s worth noting that the original report came not from the usual channel of sources but from the Twitter account of a New Orleans bankruptcy lawyer (the original Tweet said that Payton yelled at his players, “You want that? Win three f’ing games").
“I think just Sean trying to give everybody a vision, especially the young guys as to what we’re after, and the opportunity that we have, especially as the one seed,” Brees said, before steering his comments back toward the importance of keeping the focus on the upcoming game.
Now that the cat -- and the cash -- is out of the bag, one would assume that Doug Pederson will bring it to his players' attention. At the same time, after the 48-7 butt-whipping that the Saints put on them a couple of months ago, one would assume that the Eagles already had enough motivation.
Whatever the case, there is an odd dynamic at play here. What we are going to see on Sunday isn’t something that happens often, last year’s champs as a heavy underdog on the road against this year’s favorites. How much pressure the Saints feel as a result of that fact is an unknown that could play a very real part in this game.
“There’s no surprise they are clicking on all cylinders this time of year," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. "They won it all last year and that was no accident. They play with a chip on their shoulders. They’ve got a lot of good weapons, very well-coached, very fundamentally sound. They know how to make plays in crucial situations.”
The Saints seem to sense that they will be facing a different Eagles team than the one that passed through town in mid-November. On that particular afternoon, Carson Wentz played one of his worst games as a pro, throwing three interceptions while completing just 19-of-33 passes for 156 yards.
“The Foles magic is real," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said. "He’s got this team playing really good right now. He gets the ball out of his hands, he’s not taking a lot of unnecessary hits. He’s got that offense moving at a great rhythm, a great pace.”
Of course, none of that matters if Jim Schwartz can’t figure out a way to stop these high-powered Saints. In November, the Saints scored points on eight of their first nine drives of the game. Six of those drives resulted in touchdowns, and five of those touchdown drives covered 70 yards or more.
In Payton, the Saints have one of the most intuitive play-callers in the game. In Brees, they have ring-bearing quarterback with 13 career playoff starts.