Brian Allee-Walsh

As Saints near a top seed, it’s worth noting that Tom Benson is responsible for this rise

As the New Orleans Saints brace for Sunday’s pivotal game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (3:25 p.m., CBS), I am reminded of how far the Black and Gold came under the stewardship of late owner Tom Benson.

The Steelers played an unwitting role in a red-letter day for the Saints organization during the strike-shortened season of 1987, finishing on the losing end of a Week 12 game at Three Rivers Stadium that enabled New Orleans to clinch its first-ever winning season.

Small potatoes for most sports franchises but not for one that had been forced to endure 20 consecutive seasons of mostly lousy football.

And now 31 years later, the venerable Steelers organization stands between the Saints and their second-ever No. 1 seed in the NFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Remember, when Benson forked over $70.2 million in 1985 to then-Saints owner and Houston-based oilman John Mecom Jr., the franchise had never been to the playoffs let alone experienced a winning season. That changed in one fell swoop in ‘87 under general manager Jim Finks and Coach Jim Mora.

I remember vividly Nov. 29, 1987, when the Saints bested Pittsburgh 20-16 to ensure their first winning season. Standing in the back of the Saints end zone in the closing minutes, I watched quarterback Mark Malone bring the Steelers to the cusp of victory before cornerback Dave Waymer saved the day with an interception at the New Orleans 4 as time expired.

That marked the Saints’ fifth straight victory since Mora delivered his infamous “coulda, woulda, shoulda” rant following a crushing 24-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in late October at the Superdome. The Steelers’ win boosted the Saints record to 8-3, eight being the magic number in a season shortened to 15 games because of the players’ strike.

The Saints finished 12-3 and lost to the visiting Minnesota Vikings 44-10 in the wildcard round, a portent of things to come under Benson’s ownership.

Seven division titles, one conference and Super Bowl championship later, the Saints (12-2) are poised to claim homefield advantage in the NFC with a win over the Steelers.

By nightfall Sunday, I suspect Mr. Benson will be boogeying somewhere in the great beyond as his team, a soldout stadium and joyous Who Dat fans everywhere celebrate a victory two days before Christmas.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at