Saints shine under the ‘Monday Night’ lights

The New Orleans Saints return to the focus of the football universe Monday night, sharing a national stage with the Miami Dolphins in a clash of unbeatens in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It will be the Saints’ 34th appearance on “Monday Night Football” — the 13th in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, which began in 2006.

Before Payton and Brees showed up, the Saints were 6-15 on MNF. Now they stand 16-17 thanks to a 10-2 run, including the NFL’s longest active winning streak at eight games.

Much has changed in the 40-plus years since the original MNF cast of characters — Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith — descended on New Orleans to broadcast the first game in prime-time television played by the Saints.

With Payton in charge and Brees running the offense, those laughable, lovable losers from the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s have been transformed into Super Bowl champions and annual contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Their MNF record pre-Katrina (6-15) and post-Katrina (10-2) reflects the power shift from an also-ran to the Saints’ position as among the eight to 10 franchises that expect to win it all. They no longer are your grandfather’s Saints.

Few know that better than former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who played in the team’s first prime-time game Sept. 25, 1972, at Tulane Stadium.

At a midday luncheon to honor the occasion, Cosell needled then-Saints coach J.D. Roberts and predicted a walkover for Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs, who were two seasons removed from winning Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium.

Manning and the Saints nearly made the loquacious color analyst eat his words before falling to the Chiefs 20-17 on Jan Stenerud’s 22-yard field goal with 1:22 remaining.

“It was my second year in the league, and what I remember is the Chiefs were big before everybody else was big,” Manning recalled. “They were really big. I remember when they came out single-file at Tulane Stadium and did a lap around the field in T-shirts with their names and numbers on them. It was a Hank Stram thing, but every T-shirt was two sizes too small.

“Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanon, Wilbur Young, Curly Culp, Jim Marsais ... I thought, ‘Oh my God, look at those guys!’ ... We hung in there, I guess, but we really weren’t very good.”

That would be the first of five losses for Manning and the Saints on MNF before his unceremonious trade to the Houston Oilers in 1982. None cut deeper than the epic collapse against the Raiders on Dec. 3, 1979. The Saints were comfortably in front 35-14 in the second quarter before Kenny Stabler rallied the Raiders to an improbable 42-35 victory before a stunned crowd of 65,541 at the Superdome.

“That was awful,” Manning said. “Just awful. That was a nightmare, a nightmare. We’d gotten better on offense but weren’t real good on defense. But we also didn’t know how to play with a lead because we’d never get the lead. That was obvious. We were playing a great team, and they weren’t going to throw in the towel against a team like us.”

That turned out to be Manning’s best performance in prime time with the Saints. Overall, he underwhelmed in five games on MNF, completing 47 of 98 passes for 467 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions for a 46.59 passer rating.

It’s quite the opposite for Brees, who has been just shy of brilliant on MNF, especially since joining the Saints in 2006 after two pedestrian games with the San Diego Chargers in 2003 and ’04. Both outings ended in defeat, but his MNF debut Oct. 27, 2003, remains etched in his mind — not for what he did on the field but what transpired off it.

Wildfires in the San Diego area forced the Chargers to move their home game against the Dolphins to the home venue of the Arizona Cardinals in Tempe, Ariz. Before a neutral crowd of 73,014 at ASU Stadium, the Dolphins prevailed 26-10 and thoroughly frustrated Brees, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 190 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked six times, threw three interceptions and ended with a dismal 41.7 passer rating.

“It was Junior Seau’s first game back against the Chargers, and it was supposed to be his homecoming,’’ Brees said of the late 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker, who played 13 seasons with San Diego before being traded to Miami in 2003. “The fires started late Saturday night in San Diego and swept into the city by Sunday. It was scary. They were evacuating everywhere. A bunch of neighborhoods were burning down.

“I remember they let everybody into that game for free. It was kind of a wild atmosphere because I don’t know how many Charger fans or Dolphin fans were there but they cheered for everything. It was kind of like being in London, I guess. They just wanted to see action.’’

Apparently so did Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who benched Brees midway through their next game against the Bears in Chicago.

“I was benched for five games,’’ Brees said. “That was the defining moment or the turning point in my career.”

In March 2006, Brees signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the Saints. Three games into the ’06 season, the Saints hosted the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football in the first game played at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Sparked by Steve Gleason’s memorable blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown, the Saints defeated the Falcons 23-3.

That victory seemed to set the tone for Brees in future games played on Monday night. In 12 games with the Saints on MNF, Brees has a gaudy 103.4 passer rating, including a perfect 158.3 against New England in 2009 and a 157.5 mark against Green Bay in 2008.

“They are always big games, meaningful games,’’ Brees said. “Then throw in the element that you are the only game on TV, that’s kind of what you live for — that opportunity to showcase your team, your town, the Dome, the atmosphere. It’s like the (New Orleans) tourism bureau paid for the spot. These are the games you love to play, and I know these are the games people love to watch.’’

Manning echoed Brees’ sentiments.

“I don’t care who you are and how long you’ve played and what you’ve done,” he said, “you want to perform on Monday night.”