MIAMI — Sure the loss hurt, but Darren Sharper didn't fret. He was a rookie cornerback on the 1997 Green Bay squad that lost Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos.
The Packers were in their second consecutive Super Bowl. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre. They'd won 11 or more games three straight seasons. Sharper would see another Super Bowl — maybe a couple of them — soon.
Or so he thought.
"It's been a long, long time," Sharper said.
His 11-year drought will end Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, where Sharper will start at free safety for the New Orleans Saints. It's been an agonizing wait for the five-time Pro Bowl pick. Between his first and now 13th NFL campaigns, Sharper suited up for six playoff teams. Four of those lost in the wild-card round and the other two in the divisional round.
It's a point he began driving home with teammates almost as soon as the Saints clinched their spot against the Colts.
"They understand from me talking to them this week that it's tough to get back to this game," said Sharper, who spent four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before signing with the Saints as a free agent. "Don't expect to get back because it might not happen. Enjoy and do everything in your realm to have the best game of your career."
At 34, Sharper had a career year. Along with Jairus Byrd, Asante Samuel and Charles Woodson, Sharper led the NFL with nine interceptions, as many as his last three seasons combined. He parlayed three of those picks into touchdowns and racked up a league-best 376 interception return yards, almost double Cortland Finnegan's runner-up total (194).
In addition, Sharper defended 15 passes. The only other season he totaled double digits in that category was 2001 (11), according to NFL.com.
"Whenever you start to hit that 30-year-old mark, teams start to think you're over the hill," fellow Saints safety Roman Harper said. "Sharper has got a lot of ball left in him ... A lot of people said he couldn't do it anymore and he came out and proved everybody wrong."
As a rookie, Sharper appeared in 14 games and ran back his first two career interceptions for scores. He's intercepted 61 more passes since, making him the active leader and tying him for sixth all-time with Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Ken Riley is the only one of the five players with more career interceptions than Sharper who hasn't been inducted into Canton.
"He is a phenomenal player," Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. "He's tough, physical, and has a nose for the ball. He definitely makes a lot of plays. He's very aggressive with his reads. It's going to be a great match-up."
Clark will get his fill of Sharper, but the rest of the Colts need to be cognizant of him as well. The Saints won't hesitate to send him after Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.
"My rookie year, I was definitely was not in the position that I am today, being one of the leaders on the team that is in the Super Bowl," Sharper said. "I feel like this year I have the opportunity to kind of cherish those memories. My first year we lost and I want to make sure this trip is better than that one was. It was so long ago I forgot how that was. I want to make sure I remember this one."
Saints vs. Colts
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
TV: CBS Radio: 1320 AM