NEW ORLEANS — When the Vikings played the Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship game, the Superdome rang and rattled like a well-struck tambourine.
The Vikings' season ended that night, and the streets of New Orleans teemed with revelers and music. No city could have felt more alive.
When the Vikings played the Saints on Friday, the Superdome vibrated only when artificial noise echoed off the mostly empty seats.
The Vikings' playoff hopes ended on Friday night, and the streets of New Orleans were even quieter than the stands of the Saints' battered stadium. Even after a 52-33 victory that clinched another division title for the Saints, even in a city that prides itself on the hustle and flow of its streets, New Orleans could not have been more shuttered had it been hit by a blizzard.
There was no music. There were no fans carrying drinks the size of clarinets. A city that holds parades after funerals was funereal.
This is the sad place in which the Vikings ended their sad season.
The first Super Bowl I covered was in New Orleans, on Jan. 28, 1990. I've been in love with the city ever since.
I've covered Super Bowls, college bowl games, NCAA basketball and Vikings games here. I've vacationed here, and I spent a week here before that 2009 NFC title game, driving back and forth from New Orleans and Kiln, Miss., home of Brett Favre.
I've never seen New Orleans quite like this.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was devastated, and walking the streets was an act of homage and mourning, but there was music, the sound of hope.
This week there are all-too-familiar boards on the windows of far too many businesses, especially the restaurants and bars that serve tourists. On Christmas morning, most businesses were closed, and the restaurants that were open on Friday night were booked long ago.
It's as if New Orleans was visited by an airborne Katrina.
The Saints were given credit for reviving the spirit of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of a pandemic, it's difficult to tell how much mood-altering the Saints did with their victory on Friday.
The only noise that coincided with the Saints' success was a faint chant of "Kamara, Kamara" from the small crowd in the Superdome after New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the game.
The Vikings' loss eliminates them from playoff contention, gives them their first losing season since coach Mike Zimmer's debut year in 2014, and creates the possibility that this team will post his worst record.
If the Vikings lose at Detroit next Sunday, they will finish 6-10. They already have demonstrated they have their worst defense under Zimmer, who said in August, "I've never had a bad defense, ever."
Friday night, he said: "Yeah, this is a bad defense. Worst one I've ever had."
Zimmer was glum and critical of the defenders who played this game, saying, "I don't think being young has anything to do with tackling."
The Vikings hadn't allowed this many points in 57 years. A Zimmer defense had never allowed so many. He cited the absences of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr.
And he's right: A Vikings defense at full strength, or even missing one or two key players, might have won this game.
With the current available players, a franchise known for its legacy of powerhouse defensive lines did nothing to stop Kamara or hassle Drew Brees. If Brees hadn't thrown one ugly interception and seen another pass deflected into the hands of a Vikings defender, the Saints may have scored 60.
Don't let Kamara's obvious talent fool you. He never runs like this. He hadn't rushed for more than 88 yards in a game this season before Friday, when he rushed for a career-high 155.
The defensive performance was aberrant. A December Vikings collapse is not. They are 5-9 over the last three Decembers, twice missing the playoffs.
So as their team bus glided from an empty stadium into New Orleans' dark and empty streets Friday night, all they had to show for this season was excuses.