LONDON — Some goofy European television reporter was hopping around the Saints locker room Sunday afternoon, asking players who was the best singer on the team. The Louis Armstrong from this slice of New Orleans, as it were, a broad continental stereotype.
LONDON — The New Orleans Saints had to fight on Sunday.
A couple of Saints’ players were happy to belt out a few bars And why not? They were heading from Wembley Stadium straight to the airport for a red-eye flight home, tired from a grueling nine-day road trip but flush with a pair of victories. Unexpected victories. Wins earned far, far away from the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where people drive past it on the right side of the road.
Nine days ago, the Saints’ season was flickering like a campfire a couple hours past its peak. New Orleans was 0-2, again, and facing a trip to Carolina that made the likelihood of a playoff hope-killing 0-3 start (again) perilously close to being reality.
But a funny thing happened on the Saints’ road to oblivion. First, they played an exceptional game, a complete game, forcing three turnovers and cashing in on the Panthers’ mistakes for a 34-13 rout.
LONDON — The Saints are fielding the youngest starting defense the NFL has seen since 1991.
Then came Sunday’s game at Wembley. Not quite the complete performance, as there were times the Saints’ offense rattled and sputtered like a British sports car. But the defense mopped up any oil leaks and swept up the pieces of ground gears and turned it into a gem of a 20-0 shutout, New Orleans’ first clean slate (as they call shutouts in English football) since 2012.
Now 2-2 going into their one bye week, the Saints still aren’t someone’s team to beat. But they’re one game back of Atlanta and Carolina in the NFC South, have a nice head of steam built up going forward and are showing the elements of a team that can be a playoff contender for the first time since 2013.
There is, at least, hope. And four games into the season the past three years that kind of hope had evaporated into the Saints’ shimmering but grim horizon.
“They’re all important games,” coach Sean Payton said. “It’s important going into the bye having won a couple games in a row. Certainly, to be at this position after starting off the way we did is encouraging.”
Payton added one of his pet phases — “We still have a number of things we’ve got to clean up” — which is true. But some things are good. Remarkably good. Did you realize they just became the third NFL team since 1933 to make it through the first four games without committing a turnover?
LONDON — Ken Crawley had to spend two weeks waiting for his opportunity.
The Saints still rightly consider themselves a big-play team. But Sunday the team on display was a limit-risk, wait for the right moment, counter-attacking kind of team.
For a half, at least, it was ugly. If Will Lutz didn’t make his 43-yard field goal at the halftime gun, it would have been the first nil-nil (soccer term) first half for the Saints in 31 years. But he did make it, digging three points out of the damp, shaggy Wembley pitch. Then when the Saints returned from their locker room they marched down and converted a 3-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas.
It wasn’t over at that point, 9:01 of the third quarter, but it kind of was. The way the Saints defense was playing — allowing 91 of the Dolphins’ 186 total yards on Miami’s first drive, snuffed out by cornerback Ken Crawley’s nimble end zone interception. The Saints defense was there for the offense. And for guys like Crawley and safety Kenny Vaccaro, it felt darned good to be the unit that could be counted on once again.
“We were sick and tired of being the side that doesn’t do our part,” Vaccaro said.
“We know we can be a good defense. There are going to be games when we need to pitch a shutout, and there’s going to be games where (the offense) is going to need to score 28-30 points.”
It’s important to mention that Miami’s offense isn’t anything great. Dolphins coach Adam Gase said last week his team’s attack was “garbage” after a 20-6 loss to the New York Jets in which Miami’s only score came on the last play of the game. What would he say about being shut out?
LONDON — The New Orleans Saints concluded a week of turmoil Sunday by trying to show the bes…
“Every time we get something fixed,” Gase said, “something else pops up. So we’ve got to figure out what’s going on.
“We’ve got to do it quick.”
The Dolphins are only 1-2, but Saints fans have seen their kind of soap opera before. The Dolphins traveled 16,000 miles over the first three weeks of the season thanks to an unwelcomed travel agent named Hurricane Irma. Now they return home and don’t have a bye week to recharge with, and it looks like New Orleans’ 2005 Hurricane Katrina-torn season in so many ways.
That could have been the Saints again. But it’s not. Instead, they spent Sunday night winging their way west over the Atlantic, singing a happy tune.