NEW ORLEANS - Sean Payton was the toast of New Orleans even before the Saints' storybook run to the NFC championship game in his first season as a head coach.
Fans were happy to have their team back and eager to embrace a coach who wanted to be a part of the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina left entire neighborhoods in a state of water-logged ruin.
Four years later, evidence of the widespread devastation is dwindling. Shattered windows and ripped up roofs have been replaced. Homes have been rebuilt. Long rows of flooded cars and countless fetid debris piles are gone from most of the city.
The Louisiana Superdome - a hot spot of sweltering, rancid misery for thousands who took shelter there during Katrina - is getting new champagne-colored siding to replace panels faded gray by decades of sun and dented by projectiles launched by the storm's fierce winds.
When the Arizona Cardinals visit today for the divisional round of the playoffs, the dome will be a place countless thousands want to be, a place where home fans now gather to simultaneously celebrate their solidarity during the recovery and the greatness exhibited by Drew Brees and the rest of Payton's league-leading offense.
Expectations have gone up - a lot - and that's precisely what Payton envisioned when he took the job. Although New Orleans won a franchise-record 13 games this season, it will mean little if they flop in the playoffs.
"In the very beginning, when we got here, you want to raise the expectation level and how we perform, and I think that when you get to where we're at now in the postseason, this is a place that we aspire to be every year," Payton said. "For this team, just getting in the postseason was part of the process, but it wasn't the end goal. I think the expectation level of this team and the organization has changed. And four years ago that's what we were looking to do."
The Superdome crowd was already sure to be juiced even before Payton, as if to add some extra zip, brought back franchise rushing leader and fan favorite Deuce McAllister yesterday. It was not clear how much McAllister would play after being out of football for a year, but Payton said the 31-year-old running back would lead the team onto the field.
As fate would have it, the Saints (13-3) - who had a first-round bye as the NFC's top seed - open the seventh postseason in franchise history against the Cardinals (11-6), another club long known for ineptitude but recently transformed into a respected contender.
A season ago, Arizona went where the Saints never have - the Super Bowl - and nearly upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. No one doubts the Cardinals' credentials this season, not after they outlasted Green Bay in a 51-45 overtime thriller that went into the record books as the highest-scoring playoff game.
"What I see from them now is that they're playing with a lot more confidence," Brees said. "They were the NFC champs last year. They went to the Super Bowl. They represented us, our conference."
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is trying to get to his fourth Super Bowl and win his second. Yet, he sounded unsure of whether Arizona's playoff experience a year ago would be a help.
"The key for us is to still try to stay loose even though expectations are different. That's what I think was a little easier for us last year. Nobody really expected anything from us. We could kind of be us and young guys could be free and loose. It wasn't going to be like, 'You guys blew this opportunity,' because nobody expected it," Warner said. "What's different this year is, can we keep that same attitude? Can we play the same way even though there's expectations?"
Warner did so Sunday, torching the Packers for 379 yards and five TDs. Although Anquan Boldin missed that game with an ankle injury that also is expected to sideline him against New Orleans, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Early Doucet kept the Cardinals' passing attack in overdrive.
By contrast, Arizona's defense struggled mightily before winning the game with a quarterback strip and fumble return, a performance that raised the prospects of a Warner-Brees shootout.
"They're both very intelligent quarterbacks and it's very hard to fool them," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "They see the field extremely well. They do a great job of getting the ball out, knowing where to go with it.
New Orleans was abuzz with talk of the Saints possibly making their Super Bowl debut when they were 13-0. That excitement has been tempered by a three-game losing streak, but hope remains the Saints, mostly healthy after an extra week's rest, will play more like the club that blew teams out earlier this season.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey (toe) and receiver Lance Moore (ankle) looked crisp in practice this week.
Saints leading rusher Pierre Thomas (cracked ribs) said he was practicing - as well as sneezing, coughing, and laughing - without pain.
"I'm looking to hit somebody. That's how I feel," Thomas said.
On defense, the Saints have had trouble for a couple months, sliding to 25th in yards allowed (357.8). Although defensive end Charles Grant (torn triceps) is out, several other starters who missed action during the second half of the season, including starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter (sprained right knee), are ready to go again.