DON'T COUNT THEM OUT YET: Saints Alive and Well With a Big "W" at Carolina
What a difference a week makes. It was only 7 days ago this morning, that the New Orleans Saints were receiving condolences from many people throughout the entire Pro Football world, on the apparent premature and unexpected death of their 2017 NFL regular season after only 2 weeks.
That's because the Saints had gotten off to yet another 0-2 start for a 4th straight season, which in and of itself wouldn't have been considered such a big deal, had the Saints not been essentially completely embarrassed by the opposition -- the Minnesota Vikings and the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots -- in such an unthinkable fashion.
New Orleans was clearly and unequivocally beaten in both games, and specifically on the defensive side of the football; which allegedly had been the team's biggest improvement in the 2017 off-season and had been one of the highlights of their Pre-Season --- and had given both them and their uber-passionate fan-base a reason for great optimism heading into the start of the regular season.
But instead, the Saints defense came out of the gate and yielded some ungodly numbers (777 passing yards and 1,025 yards of total offense); which were so bad in fact that they were on the level of some of the unit's worst performances that had previously led them to finish among the League's worst for 4 of the past 5 NFL seasons.
And with a road trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to play the NFC South division rival and undefeated Carolina Panthers in their own stadium up next on the docket, things were looking pretty bleak for the rest of the year for the boys in the Black and Gold.
But --- something funny happened on the way to what was supposed to be yet another September loss for the Saints: they actually decided to show up and played some of their best football of the past year, with a "lights-out" and at times dominant performance, in an impressive 34-13 win at Bank of America Stadium.
"That's what we've been trying to do these last two games, but we brought it together here," said Michael Thomas, the team's 2nd year wide receiver who led the team's offense with 7 catches for 87 yards and a 1st quarter TD that set the early tone for the Saints for the remainder of the contest.
"There was more of a sense of urgency. We were hungry. We attacked them. We didn't let them attack us. We played complementary football. We made huge plays on defense and a lot of huge plays on offense."
"That's Saints football. Those are the moments that we've been waiting for."
Yeah -- him and everybody else that considers themselves to be a part of the "Who Dat Nation", for that matter.
Expectations are high for this year's Saints team.
After 3 straight years of 7-9 losing seasons and no trips to the NFL Playoffs since the end of the 2013 season, fans want to see a better product on the field this season, and much better than the one that they've been force-fed and had to swallow since the team's steady decline since losing a road Playoff game at Seattle against the Seahawks in early January of 2014.
So nobody would blame Saints fans everywhere for feeling a prevailing sense of "doom and gloom" as the team prepared to play the Panthers and their vaunted defense; which had been the #1 defense in the NFL in the 2017 season's first 2 weeks with 6 total points scored against them in 2 games.
However, what we were witness to instead was the team that everyone originally thought they were going to see 2 weeks ago at Minnesota.
The Saints offense and the man ultimately responsible for its overall performance in head coach Sean Payton, finally was able to establish some consistency after being held at bay the previous 2 weeks by the Vikings and Patriots,
The Saints utilized an at times-brilliant mix of the passing and running game that kept the Panthers defense guessing for a better part of the afternoon.
Saints QB Drew Brees turned in one of his typical performances that fans have grown accustomed to seeing (22 out of 29 for 220 yards and 3 TD's, with a passer rating of 131.4); while the 3-headed rushing attack of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and rookie Alvin Kamara led the way on the ground with 149 total rushing yards on 27 carries.
But despite the nice day turned in by the Saints offense, NOTHING was more impressive than what fans were witness to by the much-maligned New Orleans defense -- which for the most part "shut down" Carolina QB and former League MVP Cam Newton for a majority of the contest.
"It's a confidence thing," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins told reporters in the locker room after the game.
"We were able to do some good things early on. That got everyone else fired up. We were able to get pressure, force Cam into some bad decisions and create turnovers. We were able to give our offense multiple chances to go down the field and score."
"We know Cam is a guy who wants to get into a rhythm. Keeping pressure in his face and making him have to throw the ball before he wanted to or throw to guys he didn't to, that was big. We were able to hold up."
Indeed they did.
The Saints defense certainly held up their end of the bargain, as defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's opportunistic unit forced 3 turnovers and sackedNewton 4 different times --- which caused him to finish with one of the worst games of his entire NFL career with a 17 of 28 performance for 167 yards with three interceptions and a 43.8 passer rating.
The Saints secondary in particular had a magnificent performance; as CB P.J. Williams and rookie safety Marcus Williams got their first career interceptions each, while safety Kenny Vaccaro had a "bounce-back" performance after he had notably struggled in coverage for the first 2 weeks, with a tipped pass that led to Marcus Williams' pick and grabbed a critical interception of his own that "iced" the victory for New Orleans late in the 4th quarter.
The Saints defensive line was equally impressive themselves, and the 4 sacks that they registered came in between some harrowing moments early on in the contest where the New Orleans Front 7 allowed some big chunks of yardage to Panthers RB's Jonathan Stewart in the running game and rookie sensation Christian McCaffrey in the short passing game out of the backfield (McCaffrey had 9 receptions for 101 yards).
Otherwise, as a whole the Saints defense essentially stymied the entire Panthers offense for a majority of the afternoon.
Now as the Saints prepare for an overseas trip to London, England to play the Miami Dolphins next Sunday, the question becomes: will yesterday's Saints team be more like the Saints team we were expecting to see at the start of the season?
Or..... will they revert back to the godawful mess that we saw in the first 2 weeks?
Payton, who had come under some very heavy fire and rather vocal criticism from both fans and the media covering the team (and obviously from myself in this very column) in recent days, was simply just relieved to get the proverbial monkey off of his back, and to get the team back in the win column for once in the month of September.
"It was good to get one," Payton said. "Obviously, there is that sense of urgency. Often times in our league, those are important things to know. I think we had a good week of practice. I thought we had some good things early on happen. I thought the first drive was good. Defensively, the first turnover resulted in a touchdown."
Payton paused briefly for a moment and then added:
"Look, there will be a lot we have to clean up, but it's good for the players to get a win."
It was good for the players, it was good for the organization, and it was certainly good for the fans, who before yesterday's game were praying for the best, but admittedly preparing for the worst-case scenario --- a scenario that had the Saints franchise returning to the "Dark Ages" of the team's sordid past, that had once upon a time made them one of the League's very worst franchises for the first 20 years of their now 51-year history.
Instead, Saints fans were rewarded with a win that reestablished their hopes for a successful 2017 season; while boosting the confidence of a young team that earned a hard-fought victory despite missing three of their top four cornerbacks, their #2 wide receiver and both starting offensive tackles.
If the Saints can overcome adversity in the manner in which they did yesterday afternoon, it could bode well for the team moving forward as their upcoming schedule lightens up a bit; with an early Bye Week after next Sunday's game against the Dolphins included in the mix.
But of course, talking about it and then going out and actually getting it done, are two entirely different things.
Nevertheless, after getting a big "W" inside of the Panthers' den in sunny Charlotte yesterday, one thing can be said about this 2017 Saints team after yesterday's performance:
The Saints are alive and well --- and with an entire 13 games still yet to be played, nobody should underestimate them because of how they looked in the first 2 weeks.
The NFL is often funny like that, in that a team can look like total "crap" one week, and then suddenly look like "kings of the mountain" the very next week following that previous one.
Whether the Saints can play at the level that they did yesterday on a more consistent basis, will ultimately determine their fate.
However, if any one thing can be said the Saints, it's this: 13 weeks worth of football means that a whole lot of things can still happen.
And as long as the Saints can show up and play like they did at Carolina, enough times in the next 13 games?
DON'T COUNT THEM OUT YET.......