CHICAGO -- The mood was somber inside the New Orleans Saints locker room, about what you would expect after their fairy-tale season had come to an end.
New Orleans' first NFC Championship Game appearance in its 40-year history didn't go according to plan as the Chicago Bears handed the Saints a 39-14 loss on Sunday.
But in the aftermath of the lopsided defeat, the Saints took time to consider what they accomplished this season. A franchise with only eight winning seasons and two playoff victories was at the threshold of its first Super Bowl. It had come so far, doing things no one thought was possible.
Like most years, this one ended in defeat. But unlike the others, this season will be remembered for the Saints' successes rather than their failures.
"I don't know if you take positives from a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but you take a lot of positives from this season," said Sean Payton, the Saints' first-year head coach. "We turned the ship around in a short period of time. I'm proud of this team."
The Saints were the feel-good story in the NFL, but to their city and entire Gulf Coast region they meant so much more. The impact the team had on the psyche of the victims of Hurricane Katrina was immeasurable.
The Saints gave their fans hope that anything is possible.
"It's been a special season," running back Deuce McAllister said. "Right now it stings because you lost. But after a couple weeks, you'll look back at the enthusiasm that our fans showed and just the support that they showed."
As difficult as it was to accept the loss, the Saints' disappointment was tempered by the fact that their city is still recovering from Katrina. Many of the neighborhoods are still in ruins.
Knowing that helped put the game's outcome in perspective.
"This hurt we have, it will eventually go away," Payton said. "But there's a lot of pain for a lot of people in that city that won't go away anytime soon. It's disappointing that we won't be playing in this next game to give this city something else to look forward to. But we should hold our heads high."
Quarterback Drew Brees agreed.
"From where we started, I don't think anybody in America thought we'd be here," Brees said. "We have a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on."
The Saints' first NFC Championship Game may not be their last. The roster should return mostly intact, and it's loaded with young talent.
The Saints have 21 players who are 25 or younger and the team's average age is only 27. Sixteen of New Orleans' 22 offensive and defensive starters in the NFC title game are under 30.
Brees, who turned 28 this month, had a memorable first season in New Orleans, throwing for a career-high and NFL-leading 4,418 yards during the regular season. Even in defeat Sunday, he managed 354 yards passing and two TDs against the Bears' stingy defense.
The 28-year-old McAllister came back from major knee surgery to post another 1,000-yard rushing season. Second-year pro Jammal Brown, 25, made the Pro Bowl and joined Brees as a first-team All-Pro selection in his first season at left tackle. Third-year defensive end Will Smith, 25, will join Brown and Brees in Hawaii.
Rookie running back Reggie Bush lived up to expectations as an all-purpose threat (88 receptions and 1,523 yards rushing, receiving and punt returns), and provided a glimpse of his potential greatness with a spectacular 88-yard catch and run for a touchdown Sunday. Marques Colston (70 catches for 1,038 yards), a seventh-round pick from Hofstra, emerged as a gifted receiver and the steal of the 2006 draft.
Another small college rookie, Jahri Evans of Division II Bloomsburg, started every game at right guard. Rookie safety Roman Harper, who started the first five games before suffering a season-ending injury, is expected to reclaim his job next season.
"We're a young team," McAllister said. "We're going to continue to grow. We're going to continue to get better as a team. Hopefully, we'll be back at this point again."