That was a ridiculous display by the Saints on Monday night, and a telling one by the Patriots. I'll get to my five quick points about the game in a moment, but I have to start by asking: How in the world, in such a cornerback-needy league, was Mike McKenzie on the street until Week 12?
I asked McKenzie, the defensive player of the game, that question very early this morning, an hour or so after the Saints whacked the Patriots 38-17 in one of the most impressive offensive and defensive performances in years. And here's the most startling thing of all: McKenzie, healthy but frustratingly unemployed, called Saints coach Sean Payton 12 days ago, desperate for a job.
"When I saw a few guys go down with injuries, I just picked up the phone and called Coach Payton,'' McKenzie said. "When I left last March, he was real good about it. He said, 'Stay ready. And make sure you come around. Don't be a stranger.' So I called, and I told him I was in good shape and ready to play, and he said they were going to bring me in next Monday to look at me.''
"Did you think that would happen?'' I said.
"Who knows?'' McKenzie said. "But I'm glad I called. I didn't want to take any chances.''
With four corners injured, the Saints signed him after confirming that McKenzie, 33, was fully recovered from a fractured kneecap suffered Nov. 9, 2008, at Atlanta. That injury effectively ended his Saints' career ... for the time being, as it turned out.
McKenzie said he felt fully recovered by May. But after tearing his ACL in 2007 and fracturing the kneecap in 2008, he says his injury history and age conspired against him when he went mining for jobs last summer. Seattle and Houston worked him out, but neither offered a contract. So he spent the summer and fall staying in shape, going to college football games (a passion of his) and sitting in Reggie Bush's box at the Superdome at a couple of Saints games.
"I love the National Football League,'' he said. "I played 10 years and loved every minute of it. I just wanted to make sure I stayed in shape so if someone did give me the opportunity to play again, I'd be ready.''
McKenzie was ready Monday night. He made what I thought was the biggest play of the game. With 19 minutes left, the Saints led 31-17, and New England was at the New Orleans' 10 with a fourth-and-4 call to make. Coach Bill Belichick decided to go for it (surprise!), which was certainly the right call; New England needed seven points, not three. Tom Brady lined up in shotgun, and on the left side of the formation, Randy Moss was one-on-one with McKenzie.
Now, I think more than a few defensive coaches would be saying, Don't let Moss get behind you here so Brady can throw him the fade. Give Moss a little cushion. Keep him in front of you. That's not Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' way, nor McKenzie's.
"You've got to know the situation of the game there,'' McKenzie said. "I just figured there was no way they were going to go for it [the touchdown] there, even with Moss and how good he is near the goal line. They wanted to get the first down. But I think they thought I'd be playing soft there.''
So McKenzie stayed back momentarily, making it look like he was giving Moss cushion. And when Brady's arm went in motion toward Moss, McKenzie sprang forward. No pain in the rehabbed ACL, no discomfort in the mended kneecap. Just adrenalin.
"Then you just make a play,'' he said. "Just football. We'd been coached all week to be aggressive, and that's how we played the game.''
McKenzie met the ball a foot before it would have hit Moss' hands, and he swatted it away. The Saints scored an insurance touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. That was it.
McKenzie also picked off Brady in the first half, stepping in front of Moss on a short post, and broke up two other passes. He'll be a great asset for the Saints down the stretch. He looks to be in better football shape than the other veteran signed for the beleaguered secondary, Chris McAllister, and he could be an excellent nickel or dime player when Jabari Greer (groin) and Tracy Porter (knee) return later this month. He's a great addition. Watching him Monday night, you wonder why some of the corner-needy contenders -- the Giants, Baltimore, Indianapolis -- never brought him in for looks this fall. It's New Orleans' gain.
Five quick points on the game:
1. Drew Brees did a magnificent job moving the Patriots' defensive backs with his head and pump-fakes. He's a master at that. And when he threw, most often he dropped the ball perfectly into the place he wanted it. On the 38-yard touchdown to Robert Meachem late in the first half, Meachem was blanketed, yet the ball fell right into his hands at the goal line. You can't throw a better ball than that.
2. New England has faced two top-10 offenses in the first 12 weeks of the season. The Colts and Saints have put 73 points (nine touchdown passes) on the board, with 887 total yards.
3. The Patriots have no pass-rusher who scares anyone, no cover corner who quarterbacks fear. With potential playoff matches against Peyton Manning, Bon Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer or Philip Rivers, it's clear New England will have to score in the 30s to have a chance to win playoff games. Having said that, count me as one who thinks it's not over for the Patriots. I look at this scenario: They'll likely have a home wild-card game, and if they're lucky, they'll face Cincinnati on the road in the second round of the playoffs. Tough game, surely, but a winnable one; Cincinnati's 0-3 in AFC games out of the division. Then perhaps a rematch at Indianapolis against the very well-rested Colts. Who knows?
Aaron Schatz, the Football Outsiders czar and good football-thinker, e-mailed me after the game with this reminder: "Why should this loss matter to the Patriots in the long run? Is this loss worse than some of the losses Arizona had last year? Or that the Colts had to the Jags in 2006? We're all going to go crazy about how important this game is, and how it establishes the Saints and the Patriots are in trouble ... but in truth, it means just as much as last Dec. 14, when TARVARIS JACKSON of all people threw three touchdowns and Arizona lost to Minnesota AT HOME by 35-14.'' There you go.
4. That first-round pick in 2011 from Oakland will look awfully nice in 17 months. Right now, the Richard Seymour trade for the first-round pick with the Raiders looks like a dumb move. No matter how often Seymour took plays off and didn't make an impact, last night's game is the kind in which the Patriots desperately needed him.
5. Gregg Williams doesn't need a résumé to show owners when/if he's interviewed for head-coaching jobs this winter. All he has to show is the video of this game, with the havoc he created in defending Brady.
Now for your e-mail:
• LET'S FACE IT. THE MVP IS AN IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE. From Mark Trawinski of Clarksville, Tenn.: "Why 5 QBs on MVP watch? How about a little diversity? Chris Johnson is having a record-setting year and is the bedrock of the Titans' post-bye resurgence. Philip Rivers?!?''
When the Associated Press takes ballots from the football media for MVP, we vote for one player to win. That's it. I've been doing a five-player ballot Monday mornings, as you've seen, and this week I had, in order, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. This morning, I'd have the top three the same -- though very, very tight; all three are deserving -- and move Brady out, push Rivers to four and put Johnson at number five.
Don't discount Rivers. The Chargers have won six in a row, and Rivers is the cornerstone reason. But I recognize Johnson's recent greatness -- 130 rushing yards or more in each of the five games they've won to crawl back in the playoff race. And Mark, thanks for your service over there in the Army in Clarksville.
• INTERESTING. From Matt Inlay of Palo Alto, Calif.: "In reference to concussions, would the NFL ever consider a weight limit for players? To me, players are just too big and too fast for protection technology to keep up. I think one way the NFL could reduce injuries is by setting weight limits for players. Imagine if all linemen had to be under 300 pounds. I know the added bulk can help protect players from impacts, but at what costs? It would probably help the long-term health of those players after retirement, too. The human body just isn't designed to perform at that level with that much bulk.''
Matt, when I first read your e-mail, I thought it was ridiculous. But I don't think anything is ridiculous anymore in the NFL's attempt to do something about head trauma with its players. So while I'd say it sounds far-fetched, I could see the day when it is seriously considered. What a smart e-mail. For now, I think what the league is going to do is urge the players to wear helmets with max protection -- perhaps even make it mandatory; as of now, the kind of helmet players wear is left to their discretion. I talked with Roger Goodell a couple of weeks ago, and he is frustrated that players often ignore helmets with more padding and better technology in favor of helmets they've been wearing for years that they're used to.
• THIS MIGHT BE A MULLIGAN SEASON FOR THE GIANTS. From Tom K. of Randolph, N.J.: "Huge fan of yours. Read MMQB religiously. I'm a hugely disappointed Giants fan. I personally feel a change at offensive coordinator would help this team immensely. And I think Charlie Weis would be the ideal candidate? What do you think and what do you think the chances of that are?''
Very small. Thanks for your kind words, Tom. But I think unless current Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride gets the Raiders head-coaching job, he'll be back in 2010. I'd look for Bill Sheridan to be in trouble as defensive coordinator, though.
• I AM EMBARRASSED TO SAY I DIDN'T SEE IT 'TIL MONDAY AFTERNOON. From Bob of Beaver Falls, Pa.: "I'm surprised you didn't have much to say about Hines Ward questioning Ben Roethlisberger's toughness in his interview with Bob Costas on NBC. Given everything we know about head injuries now, and the fact that Ben is a co-captain of the offense, don't you think Hines was out of line?''
Yes I do. I wish I'd seen it Sunday. I have to say there are parts of the show that I don't see because I'm in the studio working or checking on injuries. Sunday night I missed that, and didn't see Ward's comments until the transcript came out late that night. Certainly I think players have to be more cognizant of head injuries, and teams are going to be far more vigilant about them.
ESPN's Trent Dilfer had an interesting take on what a story like this does to a locker room. He said some players aren't going to care what the doctors say because there's a code that says you play through pain and injuries. That's what Ward was speaking about. I can tell you this is going to be a major push by the league in the coming weeks and months -- to try to get players to break down that sort of blue wall of silence and admit when they've had memory loss or brain trauma.
• THEY HAD TO. From Ian of Encinitas, Calif.: "Tell me again why the Chargers let Brees go.''
Well, it was one of those deals where San Diego GM A.J. Smith had little choice. He had Brees recovering from major shoulder surgery and unsigned, and he didn't know if Brees would be ready to start the season. And Rivers had spent three years mostly as the understudy, and the Chargers had invested time and big money in him, and he was ready to play. He's been very good over the last four years, and I understand the frustration of the Chargers fan watching Brees be great elsewhere now. But you can't kill the Chargers for this move. Not at all.