Saints' win over Steelers could be springboard to second-half spurt

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Then there was the more subtle noise: The sound of every Saints fan in New Orleans sighing in relief.

It was just past 11 p.m. when Saints quarterback Drew Brees slipped on his sportcoat, picked up a travel bag and walked across the team's locker room with a game ball under his arm. "It's for my son," said Brees. "His first one.'' That would Brees's second son, Bowen, born 12 days earlier. The ball will eventually be inscribed with the date of the game, and also the final score: SAINTS 20, STEELERS 10. That score represents survival for the defending Super Bowl champions. Big win? "Oh man,'' said Brees, shaking his head. In fact, that barely seems to cover it.

The Saints came into Sunday night's game with a 4-3 record, having been ignominiously pounded at home by the lowly Cleveland Browns, 30-17, on Oct. 24. (It could be said that it was the Saints who wore costumes that day -- they came dressed as the Buffalo Bills). Brees threw four interceptions in that game, equaling the worst of his NFL career. Two were returned for touchdowns by the Browns' David Bowens, of all people, as if mocking Brees. (Or at least giving writers a chance to play off the irony, which was irresistible).

The season was just seven games old, less than two months removed from the Saints' season-opening, banner-raising and dull defeat of the Vikings on Sept. 9. But the Falcons and Bucs (the Bucs!) are 5-2 and the Saints face a visit to Atlanta later in the season. A loss to the Steelers would have left the Saints at 4-4 and playing the rest of the season scrambling for any shot at defending their title.

It was unfair -- or fitting, take your pick -- that the Saints were forced into the this desperate situation against the team that many regard as the best in the NFL. The Steelers had gone a well-praised 3-1 during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension and 2-0 since his return. "We knew we were playing a quality team, we knew we needed to play well,'' said Saints linebacker Scott Shanle after the game. "We haven't had this kind of energy and emotion since the opener. It was a refuse-to-lose type game, because at this point, for us, 5-3 is a far cry from 4-4.''

There was a palpable desperation that engulfed the customary Superdome sellout crowd. "This was a tough place to play,'' said Roethlisberger. "One of the loudest places that I've ever played a game in.'' The fans knew what the players knew; it could have been an elimination game.

"We put it together,'' said Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. "We had to put it together.''

Perhaps the Saints will now string together some wins. They play at Carolina next week, then finally get their bye week before returning home to play Seattle. It's realistic to think New Orleans could be 7-3. Reggie Bush, recovering from a broken fibula, is getting better every week. "I feel like I'm close,'' he said Sunday night in the Saints' locker room. "I feel good. I just need to get out on the field and push it. Running around isn't the same thing as playing in a game.''

Running back Pierre Thomas is getting close. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, both also injured, are getting close. That's all good news now, but had the Saints lost on Sunday night, reinforcements might have arrived only in time for the funeral. And for all the relief and celebration in New Orleans, rest assured, the Saints had ample opportunity to lose this game.

Consider this: With 11:36 left in the first half, Roethlisberger threw a 12-yard slant to Antwaan Randle El that was ruled a touchdown at the goal line. Saints coach Sean Payton challenged the call and the play was overturned, leaving the ball at -- and this is what referee Pete Morelli said over the stadium P.A. system -- at the "six-inch-line.'' (In the postgame press conference, Payton was asked if the challenge was worth making, so close to the goal line, the inference being the Steelers would score anyway. Payton was stunned by the question. "You have to challenge it, don't you?'' Payton said, incredulously). The Saints' defense stopped the Steelers on three straight plays and forced a field goal that gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead. It was a huge sequence.

It was also huge that just before halftime, Brees and the Saints' air game came to life. The Steelers and coordinator Dick LeBeau have the soundest scheme in the NFL, and have for many years. The Saints were cautious early, but in the 71 seconds before halftime, Brees drove the Saints to a tying field goal. He finally threw the ball down the field, 12 yards to Devery Henderson and 20 to Marques Colston. Brees would throw it more -- and deeper -- as the game wore on, finishing with 34 completions in 44 attempts for 305 yards, big numbers against a tough defense.

Consider this, as well: After the Saints had taken a 13-3 lead, sending the Dome into delirium (even more than when 68-year-old singer Dr. John was given a community service award in the first quarter), the Steelers roared back. They pulled within 13-10 on Rashard Mendenhall's 38-yard touchdown run with 10:38 to play. The Steelers forced Brees to fumble on a sack deep in Pittsburgh territory; and then Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller on a 25-yard completion to the Saints' 34, but Miller coughed up the ball, which was recovered by the ever-present Darren Sharper.

The fumble was forced by linebacker Marvin Mitchell. "Tremendous hustle play,'' said Shanle. Eight plays later, with 2:37 left, Brees finished off the Steelers with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore at the back of the end zone. The finishing touches were applied when Leigh Torrence intercepted Roethlisberger and Brees knelt three times.

In today's NFL, every week is work and any win is precious. But this one was something more. Someday Bowen Brees might look at the football in his trophy case, the one from Halloween night in 2010, and tell people that was the game that brought his father's team back to life.