As he walked across the cold field at Candlestick Park on the evening of January 14 2012, a somber Sean Payton had to come to terms with a harsh reality: the season was over. With a touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis in the waning moments of the game, the San Francisco 49ers had just eliminated his New Orleans Saints from the National Football League playoffs in an epic divisional round battle.
The tight score (36-32), was indicative of a seesaw affair that featured four lead changes in the last four minutes of the game and had the whole NFL world on the edge of their seats.
Payton shook the hand of an elated Jim Harbaugh, who could hardly contain his joy. In his first season as the head coach in San Francisco, Harbaugh had just guided the Niners to the NFC Championship game by defeating a Superbowl-winning head coach. He was announcing himself to the league with a cocky attitude and a bang. Sounds familiar? Sean Payton had done the same exact thing in 2006, when as a first-year head coach he had taken the Saints one game away from the Superbowl.
As he walked off the field, Payton realized what Harbaugh and his Niners had just ruined: one of the best offensive seasons in NFL's history, one that almost no one talks about or remembers. "Coffee is for closers."
Drew Brees had thrown for 5,476 yards in the regular season, erasing a 27-year old record set by then-Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino (5,084 yards). The Saints had eclipsed the record for most offensive yards in a single-season set by the 2000 St Louis Rams. Nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf," St Louis had 7,025 yards that year. New Orleans beat that mark by 449, posting an unbelievable 7,474 yards. In that 2011 season, New Orleans had beaten, tied or established numerous other NFL records.
Payton knew all these great numbers were now for naught. His team had fallen short of the ultimate goal: reaching and winning the Superbowl. He had seen it before. His 24th ranked defense had let him down, just as it had a year prior, in a first round playoff loss in Seattle.
While walking off Candlestick's natural grass however, there's one thing the Saints head coach didn't know: it would take him exactly one year, seven months and 25 days to be on the sidelines of a regular season NFL football game again.
After serving a yearlong suspension in 2012, Sean Payton has returned the Saints to what is normalcy in the Big Easy these days: a winning football team, a contender with not just playoffs aspirations but championship ambitions.
On Sunday afternoon, the 7-2 New Orleans Saints will face the 6-3 San Francisco 49ers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in a crucial battle of NFC heavyweights. For the first time since that cool January afternoon in 2012, Payton and Harbaugh will be matching wits from opposite sidelines.
Harbaugh will be looking to take a 2-0 head-to-head matchup lead on Payton (San Francisco defeated the Saints 31-21 in the Superdome last year while Payton was suspended). He'll also try to improve his record to 3-0 against the Saints since becoming the Niners head coach.
Payton, undoubtedly, will have flashbacks of the Candlestick heartbreak and will be looking to erase the bad taste it left in his mouth. On Sunday, he will have been waiting for that moment for precisely one year, ten months and three days.
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