On the Steelers: Past two Super Bowl champions meet on Halloween night not far from Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street in New Orleans is no stranger to hangovers, having been the harbinger of more day-after doldrums than a tax audit. Tonight is no exception, either: It is Halloween, not that anyone in the French Quarter needs an excuse to wear a costume.
For seven games, the New Orleans Saints and their high-octane offense have been masquerading as something other than the defending Super Bowl champion. Drew Brees, their Super Bowl MVP quarterback, has all of a sudden looked like Drew Bledsoe, throwing interceptions and having them returned for touchdowns at an alarming rate.
The defense that was more larcenous than John Dillinger, forcing a league-best 39 turnovers and returning eight for touchdowns in 2009, is now watching the other team do the same to them in 2010.
Even some of their victories have been lackluster, failing to score more than 16 points in two of their four wins. Last year, with an offense that includes many of the same players, the Saints scored 38 or more points in six of their 13 victories.
"It's human nature," said Brees, the quarterback who visited Disney World, played golf with Jack Nicklaus, flew with the F-16 Thunderbirds and was king of Bacchus at Mardi Gras, all because he won the Super Bowl for a franchise whose history is best defined by fans wearing paper bags over their heads.
"After you experience that kind of success, you tend to relax. You feel like you arrived and that you don't need to get any better. You've achieved what you set out to achieve."
The Steelers know the feeling well. It has happened to them twice in the past five years.
After winning the Super Bowl in 2005 and again in 2008, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs in each of the following seasons. Three other Super Bowl winners in the past 11 years have done the same thing.
In that time, only one team -- the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004 -- managed to repeat as Super Bowl champion.
That's why it is called the Super Bowl hangover. There is nothing you can take to make it go away. It is a malaise that has infected many teams, especially the Steelers. And, right now, it appears to be infesting the Saints.
"After the Super Bowl, everyone is patting you on the back and telling you how good you are," said Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who experienced the exhilarating satisfaction of winning Super Bowl XL as offensive coordinator of the Steelers and the crumbling disappointment of losing Super Bowl XLIII in his second season as head coach with the Cardinals. "The details and the extra work, the things that got you to the Super Bowl, are overlooked because everyone is telling you how happy they are to win the Super Bowl."
Sometimes, the same holds true for teams that get to the Super Bowl and lose.
Since 1998, only three teams that lost in the Super Bowl -- the 1999 Tennessee Titans, 2005 Seattle Seahawks and Whisenhunt's 2008 Cardinals -- made it to the playoffs the following season. What's more, six of the eight teams that didn't make the playoffs failed to have a winning record the following season.
Game: Steelers (5-1) at New Orleans Saints (4-3), Superdome, New Orleans.
When: 8:20 p.m.
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970) and the Steelers Radio Network.
Favored: Steelers by 3.
"The way it happened in '05, we were 7-5 after 12 games and everyone wrote us off," Whisenhunt said. "We got it together those last four games and got on that run to the Super Bowl. That emotional high, there's a sense of satisfaction in what you did. But that's a double-edged sword. It makes you feel a lot better about who you are, but then you need to say you have to get back to work and it's always more difficult."
The only thing rarer than a repeat Super Bowl champion is the previous two Super Bowl winners meeting during the regular season.
But that's what the Saints (4-3) and Steelers (5-1), who won Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier, will do when they meet at 8:20 p.m. at the Superdome in New Orleans -- the first time that has happened in 10 years.
The last time the most recent Super Bowl winners met during the regular season: Sept, 4, 2000, when the Denver Broncos (1998 champions) played the St. Louis Rams (1999 champs).
It happened more frequently in the 1990s, when the New York Giants (1990), Washington Redskins (1991) and Dallas Cowboys (1992, 1993) were winning consecutive Super Bowls and would meet twice a year because they played in the same division.
But such matchups are rare, especially in a city that celebrates Halloween as though it is Christmas morning. And, it's a matchup of teams whose costumes -- er, uniforms -- have the same black-and-gold scheme.
"A lot of black in the crowd, whether it is Steelers black or New Orleans black," said Saints coach Sean Payton.
For the Saints, there have been a lot of black cats, too.
Since Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans, the Saints have never put together back-to-back winning seasons. The last time the franchise managed that feat was 1991 and 1992 under Jim Mora.
And, since the divisions were realigned in 2002, the NFC South has never had a repeat champion.
So maybe the Saints should have more modest goals than trying to repeat as Super Bowl champion -- something no team has done since the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
Even if they have a bull's-eye the size of Louisiana on their backs.
"I think each week teams pay close attention to their preparation and their effort on game day, knowing that they are playing the team that had just won the Super Bowl," Payton said.
The Steelers thought they had their hangover cured last year when, after starting 1-2, they won five consecutive games to get to 6-2 -- the record they had after eight games in 2008.
But, apparently, a sense of satisfaction surfaced in the second half of the season when they lost five consecutive games ---- three to the league's bottom-feeders, Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.
"I thought we had turned it around," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "We got to 6-2 and then everything fell out of the bottom. I don't know if that's a Super Bowl hangover or bad luck."
The Steelers finished their post-Super Bowl season at 9-7 and tied for second in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens. But, as they did in 2006, they missed the playoffs.
"We were just as upset in a lot of those games we lost last year as any game we lost the previous year," said guard Trai Essex, who played on both Super Bowl teams. "It's tough to come back and be as good as you were because everybody is studying your film, everybody is watching you, everybody is more prepared for you this time around."
All the pieces appeared to be in place for the Saints to make another run at the Super Bowl. There was little roster turnover, in part because several players who might have otherwise left as unrestricted free agents got to stay as restricted free agents because of the expiring collective bargaining agreement.
The only contributing players to leave after the season were linebacker Scott Fujita and running back Mike Bell, each ending up with the Browns. They also cut tackle Jammal Brown and defensive end Charles Grant, two former No. 1 picks, though neither played a significant role in 2009.
The Saints didn't want to hear that Super Bowl hangover stuff.
"I keep on hearing you guys talking about this Super Bowl hangover and it's starting to chap me a little bit, OK? It really is," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said in August, after a training camp practice.
"I'm being real honest. And the reason is because if you could see every single practice this spring behind the scenes, all our defense did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanting me to be a bigger jerk, get on their butts more. So far, I've seen nothing that would indicate we can't make another run at this."
But significant injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas and two key members of their secondary -- safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Tracy Porter -- have not helped the Saints. Sharper (knee) returned last week after beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list. But the other three are not expected to play against the Steelers.
On top of that, Brees has been a turnover machine as much as he has been a touchdown maker. To be sure, he is tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns and is third in passing yards (2,029), even though opposing teams have taken away the deep pass with lots of cover-two schemes.
But, in the past three games, he has thrown eight interceptions, three of which have been returned for touchdowns. And two were to the same player -- Browns linebacker David Bowens -- in last week's loss.
Like the Steelers, who allowed eight scoring returns for touchdowns in 2009, the Saints have already had five scoring returns against them in 2010.
Or bad luck?
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Brees said. "The Steelers can attest to this. ... Coming off that Super Bowl, everyone is going to give you their best shot. The schedule is set up so it's not easy on you. For us, we're not naïve to think we're just going to step onto the field and people are going to be intimidated by us. In fact it's the opposite. You're going to get everybody's best shot."
And a headache in the morning.
First Published October 31, 2010 12:00 am