Tuesday December 1st, 2009

NEW ORLEANS -- They billed this one as the biggest regular-season game in New Orleans Saints history, and while that was a mouthful to be sure, you couldn't argue about there being an electric, almost Super Bowl-like atmosphere in the sold-out Superdome Monday night.

And here's the real news flash for you: These Saints best get used to playing on the big stage. Because thanks to New Orleans' statement-game 38-17 win over the outclassed New England Patriots, there are a lot more spotlight moments to come this season for Sean Payton's 11-0 juggernaut. A whole lot more. And like the stakes themselves, the games are only going to get bigger as this magic carpet ride of a season continues to unfold in New Orleans.

We just found out in eye-opening fashion that the only team in NFL history to mount a 16-0 regular season wasn't remotely capable of keeping the Saints from joining them in that distinction. New Orleans overwhelmed the Patriots in every meaningful way, and was so dominant that never-say-die New England actually ran up the white flag with a little more than five minutes remaining, pulling Tom Brady in favor of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.

As good as the Saints were top to bottom against the Patriots, there's nowhere else to start but with quarterback Drew Brees, he of the perfect night for the team with the perfect record. Brees has never been better in his nine-year NFL career, and his 18-of-23, 371-yard, five-touchdown dissection of the Patriots defense again boosted an MVP candidacy that had lost some steam in recent weeks.

"I thought he was outstanding tonight,'' said Saints head coach Sean Payton of his quarterback, who threw touchdowns to five teammates and posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating. "I thought he was special. Let's just say he's playing real well. It was a great job by him. It was magnificent.''

There were so many heroes for the Saints it's almost hard to keep track. But this team starts with Brees, and he knew how much this measuring-stick game meant for a Saints team that needed to test itself against one of the best in the NFL, and answer resoundingly. New England entered the Monday night with 17 consecutive regular-season wins against NFC opponents, but it has been a long time since Bill Belichick and Co. ran into a buzzsaw like the Saints, who hung up 480 yards of offense and five touchdowns on New England, averaging a ridiculous 9.6 yards per offensive play.

"It only counts for one win on the stat sheet, but emotionally, these types of wins can mean a little bit more,'' Brees said. "We played a tremendous football team tonight. They know how to win; they do things the right way. Anytime you can win and win that way, it builds confidence. But by no means is anybody going to roll over for us. We understand that, and know next week's game is as big as this one.

"People are going to talk about this game and maybe blow it out of proportion a little bit. But this game doesn't entitle us to anything.''

No. But it just might empower them and lead to even greater success. It certainly forces everyone to admit the Saints are definitely capable of getting to and winning the Super Bowl this season. After an impressive opening drive gave New England a 7-3 lead, New Orleans scored 35 of the game's final 45 points, turning the anticipated shootout into a blowout by the middle of the third quarter and starting the celebration early in this party-loving city.

The Saints offense was a big-play machine against a Patriots defense that time and time again made the big mistake. There was Devery Henderson's 75-yard second-quarter touchdown catch, which came courtesy of a busted coverage by the Patriots secondary, a 68-yard Marques Colston reception that set up another quick touchdown, and a 38-yard Robert Meachem touchdown catch over oft-beaten cornerback Jonathan Wilhite. We're just not used to seeing a New England defense undressed on national television.

And the Saints' win was far from a one-sided affair in favor of their quick-strike offense. Despite a secondary that was injury-riddled and playing with a rookie cornerback (Malcolm Jenkins) and two off-the-street veteran cornerbacks in the reborn Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister, New Orleans' defense took it to Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots' star-studded offense all night long. They intercepted Brady twice, forced a Laurence Maroney fumble, and limited New England's passing game to just 237 yards and a 5.8-yard average gain per pass play (compared to the Saints' gaudy 15.3).

"We knew it would be a challenge,'' said Payton, showing graciousness to a Patriots team that in truth didn't challenge his team for much more than a half. "Fortunately we were able to get a little bit of a lead and then separate from them.''

These Saints have separated themselves all right. And now it's no longer absurd to start wondering who exactly might beat New Orleans and end its perfect season. The Saints play at Washington (3-8) and at Atlanta (6-5) in the coming two weeks, and the threat the Falcons once seemed to be has diminished recently as Atlanta's injuries have mounted. In its final three games, New Orleans draws Dallas (8-3) and Tampa Bay (1-10) at home, and finishes at Carolina (4-7) in Week 17. The Cowboys can't score with the Saints in the Superdome, and the playing-out-the-string Bucs and Panthers shouldn't offer much competition. And if Minnesota (10-1) continues to win, New Orleans will need each and every win in order to protect its one-game lead in the race for NFC's homefield advantage in the playoffs. There figures to be no letting off the gas in the Saints' immediate future.

Before Monday night, we knew the Saints were good. After Monday night, the idea of New Orleans achieving greatness this season is starting to sound more than reasonable, and maybe even looking likely. To a man, the Patriots were certainly convinced. They didn't need to see any more of Brees and friends.

"Everyone saw it out there, they put it to us,'' said New England receiver Randy Moss, who was held to just one catch for nine yards in the first half, and finished with three receptions for 67 yards. "They played real good football, something we really haven't seen on film from anyone we've played so far.''

Last I checked, Moss and the Patriots played and lost to the equally undefeated Colts (11-0) just two short weeks ago. Sounds like Moss fully believes in the Saints as they're coming off the most significant regular-season win in New Orleans franchise history. Monday night might have felt like the Super Bowl for the Saints and their fans. But give it time. If the dismantling of the Patriots taught us anything, it's that bigger things are still ahead in New Orleans this season.

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