NEW ORLEANS—As the goalpost quivered and the clock ticked to zero, Drew Brees deferred to a higher power. The Saints, tied at 20 with the Cowboys, had just missed a game-winning 30-yard field goal, which had ricocheted off the left upright. Their quarterback thought to himself that well, maybe that wasn’t the way God thought they should win their game.
He also thought about what would come next: A touchdown pass would be the 400th of his career, just hours after he became only the third quarterback in NFL history to complete 5,000 passes. In a situation where so many players insist they’re ignorant—to acknowledge milestones is to jinx them, I suppose—Brees was fully cognizant. He was going to win the game on no. 400, he thought, and he did. Overtime began. One incompletion, and then there it was, a toss to C.J. Spiller that wound up 80 yards downfield in the end zone. Saints 26, Cowboys 20.
The game was anything but pretty. There was that missed field goal. There were near-interceptions, turnovers negated by penalties and drops. There were wallops on Brees, and a struggling Saints offensive line slowed New Orleans’ run game. Still, though, the Superdome buzzed like it always has, even if its occupants were riding a rare six-game home losing streak. It reverberated like the place it used to be, where opponents were smothered by the ‘Who Dats’ and one of the NFL’s best offenses of this generation.
But the Saints are none of those things, not anymore. Yes, Brees is back from the shoulder injury that caused him to sit out the first meaningful game of his time in New Orleans, but he’s still 36 years old and without the weapons he once had. His team is still spending huge chunks of cash on players no longer on its roster, suffocated by the salary cap. Even if Sunday proved the Saints are better than the 0–3 record they rode into their matchup with Brandon Weeden and company, it did nothing to suggest this team can contend in the NFC South, where the Falcons and Panthers sit at the top, tied at 4–0.
Asked after the game if the win represented his team coming out on the other side of adversity, Saints coach Sean Payton deferred. He wouldn’t go that far. “We’re fortunate to avoid losing in a game like that,” he said of New Orleans’s performance.
Brees and his rested shoulder went 33-of-41 for 359 yards and two touchdowns. It was a vintage stat line, a perfect reminder that any team with Brees under center won’t languish at the bottom of the NFL. “He’s special,” receiver Brandin Cooks says of his quarterback. “He’s special. You can’t count us out.”
But for the good part of a year, opponents have been able to do just that. New Orleans narrowly missed the playoffs a season ago but finished 7—9, and the home losing streak they rode into Sunday would’ve been unheard of two seasons ago. So does Sunday’s win set a new tone? Not yet, veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief says. He called the win “a relief,” but cautioned against reading too much into it. Yes, the Saints got back some key pieces on defense—Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis both saw their first game action of 2015—and Brees’s shoulder seemed if not great, then at least perfectly fine. Still, Strief needs to see another performance like Sunday’s. Ideally a sharper one.
These Saints aren’t done. But they aren’t what they once were.