Following the Champs

WHAT EVERY FAN SHOULD KNOW

MICHAEL C. HEBERT PHOTOGRAPH

Welcome to the winner’s circle, Saints fans; it’s a blissfully conflicted place to be.

There is little debate that the Saints are the NFL’s “chosen ones” this season. After spending decades as the embodiment of futility, the Saints shrugged off that millstone permanently by winning Super Bowl XLIV –  an event that heralded the simultaneous triumph of a football team and an American city.

This season that tale will be told time and again to an ever-expanding audience, and its one that Saints fans never tire of hearing. Here are some elements of this season’s experience for which fans should prepare:

• The Saints will play five nationally televised regular season games, the most in team history.

• Another franchise first: a game on Thanksgiving Day.

• Fittingly, the last team standing during the 2009 NFL season will be the first home team to kick off the ’10 season. When the Saints play host to the Minnesota Vikings on Thurs., Sept. 9, the Louisiana Superdome will shimmer more brightly than usual – and that’s no metaphor. 16,000 newly installed aluminum panels represent the resplendent ’Dome’s first such facelift since it was built in 1975.

• The most anticipated addition inside the building is the Super Bowl XLIV champion banner that will serve as a permanent reminder to incredulous Saints fans that last season was, in fact, a reality.

• Most of the significant renovations inside the ’Dome won’t be completed until after this season but there will be some changes that are immediately obvious: 16 new suites will occupy the 300 level, bringing the total number of suites to 153.

• To make room for the suites, the press box has been moved to the top of the terrace level, much farther removed from the field. To some media members who were accustomed to the old perch, it may feel less like reporting and more like surveillance. The state-of-the-art press box has a capacity of 200, and there doesn’t figure to be many empty seats in the season opener against the Vikings, a match-up that offers a surfeit of storylines for the local and national media alike.

• In week five, the Saints will have another playoff rematch, this time on the road against the Arizona Cardinals, sans quarterback Kurt Warner who some might say was ushered into retirement by former Saints defensive end Bobby McCray. McCray laid a devastating block on Warner during the Saints divisional playoff victory, momentarily knocking him out of the game.

• The Saints are back in prime time on Halloween night when they play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that features the past two Super Bowl champions. The Oct. 31 match-up will kick off at 7:20 p.m. and will be televised by NBC.

• New Orleanians should make their Thanksgiving Day plans on the basis of their proximity to a large and reliable television. That is because the Saints will finally participate in the hallowed rite that merges America’s voracious appetites for poultry and pigskin.The Saints will make their first trip to colossal Cowboys Stadium, the site of Super Bowl XLV, to meet the Cowboys – the team that spoiled the Saints perfect 13-0 start last season. FOX will televise the game, which will kick off at 3 p.m.

• The Saints will play their first ever back-to-back prime time games. In week two, they travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers in an ESPN Monday Night Football contest on Sept. 20.

• The Saints will hit the road twice in December for a pair of potentially frosty games against AFC North opponents. New Orleans has historically struggled in cold weather games, and on Dec. 5 in Cincinnati and Dec. 19 in Baltimore, you can bet every time Drew Brees exhales at the line of scrimmage, you’ll be able to see it on your high-def TV.

• The Saints make their final regular season appearance in prime time on Dec. 27 against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. That game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. And while this week 16 match-up could have major divisional implications, Saints fans hope to see a lot of Drew Brees’ backup, whoever that may be. That will mean for the second straight season, the Saints have already wrapped up an NFC South title, and possibly more.

• The Saints will play five playoff teams this season. And with so much national television exposure, they will have ample opportunity to show the country that they, and their fans, still deserve a place in the winner’s circle.
 

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