Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS ― The pain will last awhile.

It would be hard for it not to.

Everything the Saints accomplished this season a franchise-record tying 13-3 regular season, the NFL's most prolific offense ever, a nine-game win streak seems meaningless.

'Ultimately, the goal for our season was championships,' Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said in a solemn post-game locker room in Candlestick Park on Saturday. 'Not being able to accomplish that, it really means more than records, the plays that we made. It means more than all that.

'We're not finding solace in the record books right now. We're not finding solace in the big plays we made, our stats. There's really no way to justify what happened.'

Only, that's not true.

The 53-plus players who made up the Saints roster throughout the season were special, a group that under the right circumstances and maybe a different day, would still be playing.

Make no mistake the Saints were championship-caliber in 2011, Super Bowl-worthy no doubt.

What other team could have come back from 17-0 on the road in a hostile environment after turning the ball over four times in the first half (and three of the first four possessions)?

'This team is never going to be like this team was,' Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks said. 'It's not going be the same next year. It always changes a little bit. I thought we had something special here. We were this close. It sucks.'

You hope years down the line they will still know that this was a special team, even if right now it's painful.

In 10 years, when a lot of this group will be out of the NFL, retired from careers fought between the sidelines, they'll realize that the playoff loss, however hard to take, doesn't take away from just how good this team was.

Teams win and lose. The Saints did more of the former than the latter this season and usually did it in spectacular fashion.

One game doesn't change that and, when looked back at, the way they fought back Saturday is something they'll remember more than a lot of other things, including the loss.

Veteran right tackle Zach Strief, through the agony, might have had the best perspective, one shared by coach Sean Payton.

'He's proud of us,' Strief said of Payton's message after the loss. 'He's proud to be a part of this group, to be involved with us. I think that's the same way we feel. I'm proud to be a part of it.

'There's not a lot of teams that would fight back after that first half that we had. You turn the ball over four times in the first six or seven possessions, There's a lot of teams that would turn it in at 17-0, on the road against the No. (4) defense in the NFL.

'I'm proud to be a part of a team that fights back.'

As well he should be.

The season may have been book-ended by losses, but the meat of the season, the best part, was something that was special, something that the NFL has rarely seen.

So yes, like Greer said, they may not be finding solace in the records now.

But that will come later, when they're describing to their children and eventually grandchildren just how special 2011 was.

'We never stopped fighting,' Nicks said. 'We never quit. We had this game won for 40 seconds. If we could have held them, we would have been in the NFC championship. I'm proud to be a part of this team.'

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