CHICAGO -- This is uncharted territory for the New Orleans Saints. Never in their 40-year history have they advanced this deep in the playoffs.
After a long legacy of losing, the Saints will play in their first-ever NFC Championship Game. And if they beat the Chicago Bears today at Soldier Field, it will add another chapter to arguably the most improbable story in NFL history.
"Growing up and just looking at the Saints as far as their history is concerned, they've always been a bad team," said running back Deuce McAllister. "That's why it's so hard for people to grasp that we're only one game away from the Super Bowl."
No one saw this coming, not after a season in which the Saints were forced into a nomadic existence after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Playing "home games" in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and even Giants Stadium, the Saints were set up to fail and they did, finishing with a 3-13 record.
This is just the eighth winning season for the Saints, who had to wait 21 years for their first one. Their all-time record including this year's playoffs is 249-363-5 going back to their inaugural 1967 season. They've made the playoffs only six times, winning twice.
But people who used to wear bags over their heads at games and called their team the Aints now have a club they can be proud of. This season has uplifted a still-recovering city.
"Everywhere you go people come up and say, 'Thank you for being here. Thank you for winning,' and I'm like, 'No, thank you for your support,' " said linebacker Scott Fujita. "I have never been on a team where I really felt like the community and the team were in it together. And that's not just lip service, that's the truth."
The Saints' remarkable turnaround is the result of a series of events that occurred in the offseason. Sean Payton was hired as head coach, and he quickly dismantled the losing culture that cloaked the franchise. The Saints added several key free agents, headed by quarterback Drew Brees, who led the NFL with 4,418 passing yards. McAllister came back from a serious knee injury to post his fourth 1,000-yard season in five years.
New Orleans got running back Reggie Bush with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Bush had 88 catches, an NFL record for a rookie running back. Wide receiver Marques Colston, the 252nd of 255 players selected, caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns.
"We've got a great group of guys," Brees said. "And we've got, I think more so than anything, not only good players but good people. We have guys with great character, great leadership skills. And guys that really came together for a common purpose here. We saw the opportunity that was ahead of us and have taken every advantage of it. Who would have thought we would be in this position? But we are."
The Saints are a surprise participant in the conference title game, but the Bears were expected to be here after finishing the season with the NFC's best record.
Although the Bears are 2 1/2 -point favorites by the oddsmakers, they aren't bothered that most of the nation is rooting for the Saints.
"I think it's a feel-good story, and they deserve a lot of attention," quarterback Rex Grossman said. "But it doesn't matter what people think about the game and the outcome. We're going to make sure we come out and play our best game."
Not only do the Saints have to deal with the Bears, they also must overcome a bit of history. No dome team has won a championship game outdoors.
But the Saints have beaten the odds all season. They also want to prove to the country that they are more than a team of destiny.
"We have been riding an emotional wave this whole year," Fujita said. "But you can't discredit [us], this is a damn good team. The more games you watched and the effort you see the players are putting out there, and also the talent level, you see it's a lot more than just an emotional story. This is a legitimate contender. We're kind of like knocking on heaven's door right now. We're one win away from the Super Bowl."