NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Just 90 seconds into a game that was a horrific year in the making, the New Orleans Saints flopped on a ball in the end zone - and the party was on.
The defence beat up Michael Vick. Tom Benson danced off the field with his parasol. Even "The Superdome Special" worked to perfection. The Saints are home again. In an earsplitting return to their rebuilt stadium, the Saints gave the Big Easy something to cheer about - an undefeated football team that made it look easy with a 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
This one couldn't have been scripted any better for a team that spent all of last season on the road, and it couldn't have come at a better time for a city that is still struggling to overcome the devastation of hurricane Katrina.
"From the moment I signed with the Saints, I was looking forward to this," said quarterback Drew Brees, who joined New Orleans during the offseason. "It was a great night. It's something we'll never forget."
After a Super Bowl-like pregame show that included a performance by supergroups U2 and Green Day, the Saints wasted no time turning their welcome-home party into Mardi Gras: The Falcons' first drive went three-and-out, and special teams demon Steve Gleason sliced through the middle of the Atlanta line to smother Michael Koenen's punt.
The ball skidded across the goal line, where Curtis Deloatch fell on it for a touchdown - the first given up by the Falcons this season. Just like that, Saints sent an emphatic message to the NFL and the entire country: New Orleans is open for business.
DeLoatch ran over to the stands and pointed at the crowd of 70,003, as if to say, "Take that Katrina!" Undoubtedly, many more were cheering around this still-recovering city, some of them vowing to set up televisions outside government-issued trailers that pass for homes more than a year after the storm blew ashore, the levees broke and the water poured through.
"That set the tone," Brees said. "That's when we all knew. This was our day, our night."
Benson, the Saints' once-reviled owner, broke out his parasol when it was over, bouncing off the field to "When The Saints Go Marching In" and revelling in the cheers of a fan base that feared he would take their team away.
The Saints dedicated a game ball to the entire city.
"It meant a lot to them when the Saints didn't leave in their time of need," rookie Reggie Bush said. "When the people of New Orleans needed something to look to for confidence and something to be proud of, they looked to the Saints."
The Saints (3-0) poured it on against the Falcons (2-1), who fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter and never recovered. Devery Henderson scored New Orleans' second TD on an 11-yard double-reverse, taking a handoff from Bush and cutting inside the pylon with help from a gutsy block by quarterback Drew Brees.
How could that play not work? When working on it in practice, the Saints dubbed their bit of chicanery "The Superdome Special."
John Carney kicked two field goals in the second period, including a 51-yarder that cleared the crossbar as time ran out. The Saints trotted to the locker room with a 20-3 lead and a rousing ovation ringing in their ears. The Falcons straggled off in the opposite direction, as if they already knew this wasn't going to be their night.
"As tough as it is to lose a game, I'd be lying if I said there isn't a little, little, little piece of me that didn't appreciate what this game meant to this city," said Falcons coach Jim Mora, whose father is the winningest coach in Saints history. "It meant a lot."
Of course, a Saints win seemed in the stars even before the kickoff. This was intended to be a showcase for New Orleans' rebirth, as frustrating and halting as that process has been for so many.
Fans clad in gold and black strolled around the French Quarter throughout a brilliantly sunny day, ready to look forward instead of looking back at those awful scenes of suffering inside the Superdome in the days after Katrina.
Those who had tickets to get inside the 31-year-old stadium found it spruced up with new scoreboards, bright video screens and plenty of fresh paint, all part of a US$185 million renovation that was designed to keep the Saints from moving to San Antonio, Los Angeles or some other NFL-deprived city.
Showing the significance of the game, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, were both at the Superdome. Signs were hung throughout the stadium, sending messages such as "Home Sweet Dome" and "Thank You America. New Orleans & Saints Are Here to Stay."
After Bono left the stage and former President George Bush took care of the coin flip, the Saints made sure the party would last all night. They dominated on special teams - also blocking a short field goal attempt by 46-year-old Morten Andersen - and shut down Atlanta's feared running game.
The Falcons, coming off a franchise-record 306 yards on the ground against Tampa Bay, managed just 117 yards rushing on the inspired Saints. Vick had a miserable game, completing 12-of-31 for 137 yards.
"I never in my life heard a crowd roar so loud," Vick said. "It just goes to show the appreciation they have for having the New Orleans Saints back in the dome, bringing football back to the city. I commend them for that. They deserve it."
Any hopes of an Atlanta comeback were snuffed out on the first possession of the second half. New Orleans took the kickoff and drove 73 yards in 12 plays, burning more than 7 1/2 minutes off the clock before settling for Carney's third field goal from 20 yards.
"Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" the fans chanted.
Not the Falcons. Not on this night.
Alge Crumpler, the team's normally sure-handed tight end, dropped a pass in the end zone with no one around him in the first quarter. Andersen, still reviled in New Orleans for leaving to sign with the rival Falcons more than a decade ago, had a 25-yard chip shot swatted away by Josh Bullocks on the night the kicker became the second-oldest player in NFL history.
Even the referees chipped in, picking up a flag on a dubious pass interference call that could have extended a Falcons drive late in the third quarter.
About the only thing that didn't go right for New Orleans was a first touchdown for Bush. Still, "Saint Reggie" gave the fans several chances to cheer their rookie sensation, rushing for 53 yards and catching four passes for 19 yards.
Deuce McAllister handled the bulk of the ground attack, with 19 rushes for 81 yards. Brees was 20-of-28 passing for 191 yards. His favorite receiver was rookie Marques Colston - the fourth-to-last pick in this year's draft - who grabbed seven passes for 97 yards.
"If we had lost, the fans still would have been partying, they still would have been happy, because the organization is still in New Orleans," receiver Joe Horn said. "But we wanted to put the icing on the cake."
And what a cake. The Saints seized first place all to themselves in the NFC South while matching their wins from all of last season. Forced to play in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and East Rutherford because of the Superdome's massive damage, New Orleans struggled to a 3-13 record as a team without a home.
Now, they're home for good.
Notes: Andersen did connect on a 26-yard field goal for the Falcons' only points. ... Atlanta DE John Abraham missed his second straight game with a groin injury. ... Saints FB Mike Karney returned to the lineup after sitting out the previous week with a strained calf.