Hoping to win, hop on a plane and get good news when they arrived back in New Orleans, the Saints instead headed home Sunday knowing their season was over.
Kick returner extraordinaire Devin Hester raced for a pair of TDs -- one on a 64-yard punt return, another on a 55-yard pass -- and the Chicago Bears beat the Saints 33-25, erasing New Orleans' slim chances for the playoffs.
Eleven months ago the Saints' season ended in the NFC Championship game with a 39-14 loss at Soldier Field that sent the Bears to the Super Bowl.
Now New Orleans was left to digest another loss on the same field -- this time without making the postseason.
"They feel about the same," said Drew Brees, who set an NFL record for completions in a single season -- he finished with 443 -- while attempting 60 passes Sunday. "If we had won this game we still might have had an opportunity for the playoffs."
Saints coach Sean Payton didn't see the similarities between the two disheartening losses.
"It is different. Different teams, different circumstances -- an NFC Championship Game and 7-9," he said. "It's an irony that the season ended here."
New Orleans needed to beat the Bears and have both the Redskins and Vikings lose Sunday in later games. Minnesota lost to Denver in overtime, but Washington routed Dallas to make the postseason.
Now the two teams that were atop the NFC last season are both out in the cold.
Chicago (7-9), which lost the Super Bowl to the Colts, was eliminated from the postseason picture two weeks ago. The Bears won their final two games, their only two-game winning streak all year.
"Coming off the season we had last year, we were hoping for better things. But at the end of the day, we left off with a good note," Hester said.
"Look at way we're playing right now. We should have been doing that all season. It's tough. But things happen."
Hester now has four punt return touchdowns and two on kickoffs this season. Last year he had five total, three on punts and two on kickoffs -- not counting one to start the Super Bowl.
After the Saints (7-9) went three-and-out on the first series of the second half, Steve Weatherford punted to Hester -- a mistake. He went right and then quickly cut back left, found a seam and easily outraced would-be tacklers to put the Bears ahead 31-17.
"The punt plan was out of bounds. Period," Payton said.
Brees and Marques Colston hooked up for two first-half touchdown passes. And Brees eclipsed the previous mark of 418 completions set by Rich Gannon in 2002, needing just 11 entering the game.
But Colston, who took several hard shots, hurt his left wrist when he hit it on a helmet and it swelled up so badly he couldn't move it. He spent the second half on the sidelines, taking away the Saints' chief threat. Running back Reggie Bush was out with a knee injury, and wide receiver Terrance Copper got a concussion Sunday.
"We came into the game with five receivers and by the time we got into the last couple of drives, we had only three," Brees said. "It was one of those deals where we were just trying to survive at that point."
Brees was 35-of-60 for 320 yards with three TDs.
Undrafted rookie free agent Pierre Thomas, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and played his college ball at Illinois, gave the Saints a big lift, gaining 105 yards rushing and catching 12 passes for 121 yards.
Hester hauled in Orton's long pass and split two defenders for the 55-yard score with 1:48 to go in the first half -- 19 seconds after Brees threw his second TD pass of the game to Colston.
Colston made eight receptions in the first half and broke Joe Horn's club record of 94 catches in a season, finishing with 98.
Brees found Colston wide open at the 14, and he ran it in for a 21-yard TD that made it 17-14 with 2:07 left in the half.
Adrian Peterson's 9-yard halfback option pass to Bernard Berrian for a TD gave the Bears a 17-7 lead.
Brees tied the NFL record with his 10th completion, lofting a third-down pass to the end zone that Colston went up and grabbed for a 3-yard TD with 8:35 left in the half. The score cut the Bears lead to 10-7.
Brian Urlacher intercepted Brees' second attempt of the game. The Bears had the ball at the Saints 21 before settling for Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal.
Chicago Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, playing in perhaps his final game for the Bears, made a vicious hit on Colston as he tried to catch a third-down pass on the next series. A minor skirmish ensued near the Bears bench.
But Chicago then got the ball on a punt and Orton drove the Bears 71 yards, zipping a 19-yard TD pass to Mark Bradley.