NEW ORLEANS -- At 11:25 a.m. on Sunday in New Orleans, hours before the Saints’ impressive 44-23 romp of the Packers, the city’s early risers groaned as their division rivals, the Falcons, looked poised to steal a game from the Lions in London.
Five minutes and one Matt Prater field goal later, Atlanta lost.
Around 2:45 p.m., things got even more interesting. For three quarters of their game against Seattle, the Panthers had held Russell Wilson and company to just two field goals. Carolina was up, 9-6, and the clock was ticking. But on a last-second drive, Wilson connected with backup tight end Luke Willson, and the Panthers fell, 13-9.
The bonus came just 15 minutes later, when the Vikings’ kicker Blair Walsh knocked a 38-yard-field goal through the uprights in Tampa Bay, sending his game against the Buccaneers to overtime. It took just 17 seconds, then, for Minnesota to recover a fumble for a touchdown, sending Tampa Bay to its third straight loss and a 1-6 record.
Meanwhile, the Saints waited. Fans decked out in black and gold, some already in their wacky Halloween costumes, set up their tents under the overpasses of downtown New Orleans. They drank their beers on the sidewalks outside of bars, mingling with the visiting cheeseheads, ready. Their team was coming off a gut-wrenching, last-second loss in Detroit, and the Packers had won four straight, but New Orleans buzzed as if the NFC Championship loomed.
It buzzed because its two-win team was just a vintage Drew Brees performance away from being a half a game back in the NFC South, and even if the Saints were facing off against the red hot Packers, there was hope.
And then the Saints took the field, and the Superdome echoed, and by the end of the third quarter, that hope was justified. By that point, New Orleans was up by two touchdowns, en route to a blowout victory. Unlike their division rivals, the Saints didn’t need a full game to determine their fate on Sunday. They sealed it early, and by the fourth quarter, it was understandable if they were looking ahead to Thursday, when they’ll face the Panthers in Charlotte – and when they’ll have the chance to fly home with a .500 record and the division lead.
After Sunday’s game, Saints coach Sean Payton shuffled into the interview room, his words simple. It was a big win, he said, obviously – with an emphasis on the obviously. I mean, a team that went into the game with a 2-4 record, a team that had been left for dead, had just upended Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. What more was there to say? There was the schedule for an abbreviated week to discuss, the nuances of playing a game not four days after this one ended, 700 miles away. We’ll rest, and we’ll focus mentally, and blah, blah, blah.
The only thing the Saints need to do at this point is to win, to play like they played on Sunday, when Brees threw for 311 yards, three touchdowns and not a single interception and their defense, despite allowing the Packers 491 yards, managed to get to Rodgers and create turnovers.
“It’s early still, and yet every week, it gets harder and harder, and you put yourself in more and more of a bind [where] you have very little room for error,” Saints offensive lineman Zach Strief said Sunday. “Fortunately, as the division has gone this year, we’re right there. Next week, we have a chance to take over the division. Obviously you feel fortunate to be in this situation, and yet our goals go beyond that. We’ll take being in the division that’s struggling right now.”
Realistically, the NFC South will come down to the Panthers and the Saints. The Falcons have just two wins with eight games remaining, the Buccaneers one with nine to go – and both look the part of the bottom-dweller. The Panthers, too, have seemed anything but dominant, with an offense that’s worse than a year ago and a defense that’s floundered without Greg Hardy.
And then there are the Saints, who were supposed to contend, who’ve appeared to be anything but a team that’ll be playing into January. But look a bit closer. Look at the point differential: +11. That’s right, the 3-4 Saints have outscored their opponents by more than a touchdown, thanks to three losses by three points or fewer. In fact, New Orleans has only been blown out once, and by a Cowboys team that’s since emerged as perhaps one of the better teams in the NFC.
So maybe Sunday was a turning point. The Saints will certainly hope so, and they weren’t afraid to tout the game as such in the locker room after. At halftime, when Payton addressed his team with the game tied at 16, his message was simple: We’re close. Those turnovers are going to come. We’re close. Just stick to it. Strief called his coach “clairvoyant,” and his message can be applied to the bigger picture, too, to the looming game in Carolina, to a schedule that features four teams with winning records but only one, Baltimore, that might be better than the one New Orleans throttled Sunday night. The Saints may not ever be the team many expected them to be this season. They may not even be good, but the postseason is still very much in play. After all, it’s only been four years since an 11-5 New Orleans team lost to the 7-9 Seahawks in the Wild Card game.
“Every year, there’s… the team that’s supposed to be successful that struggles, the team that no one thinks is going to do well that does well,” Strief said. “This is what you learn, playing in this league long enough: every guy on that other team is good enough to be there. Every guy can beat you. You can beat every guy. The playing field is very level. Anything can happen.”
Strief’s words are at once comforting and terrifying. The NFC South is still anyone’s division, just waiting for one of its teams to ascend from mediocrity, and in his postgame press conference, Brees offered some advice – from his grandfather, of all people. There are three types of people, Brees’s grandfather always said. There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wake up and say, What the heck happened?
“I feel like this year we’re been waking up and saying, ‘What the heck happened?’” Brees said, “and it’s about time we made it happen.”