This is why they play the game.
Amid a week of distractions ranging from playing the previous Monday night to having their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback dealing with a painful foot injury to more reports of major change at season’s end — and don’t forget Christmas — the Saints went out and, as Sean Payton likes to say, did their jobs Sunday, both individually and collectively, to beat Jacksonville 38-27 in the team’s home finale.
Does it matter that at 6-9 the team is assured of a losing season and no playoff berth? Sure.
That’s why they play the game, too.
But there was something else on display Sunday, and the fact that the other team was in a similar situation doesn’t take away from the result.
“That’s the thing that was most inspirational,” Payton said. “I said to them, watching the game, you wouldn’t know if this was Week 3 or Week 16.”
Maybe it should have been expected.
You knew that if Drew Brees could walk, despite plantar fasciitis in his right foot, he was going to be out there. And he was, for every offensive snap.
It’s what we’ve come to expect from the greatest player in franchise history — a legacy-adding 412 passing yards and three touchdown passes.
“That’s guy’s phenomenal,” running back Tim Hightower said. “To fight through what he’s fought through. Even to see how he looked Wednesday at practice until today. He came out here and did what not many people are able to do.”
Hightower knows a thing or two about playing through adversity.
He made the Saints’ initial 53-man roster after a knee injury cost him three years of his career, only to be cut on the eve of the first game.
Re-signed in November, Hightower became the team’s No. 1 back last week after Mark Ingram went on injured reserve.
On Sunday, Hightower carried 27 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He also had three catches for 47 yards, making it the most productive day of his career.
“I’m just trying to give it all I’ve got,” Hightower said. “That’s what I told my O-line before the game, and they gave me everything they had. You don’t have any room for contentment or complacency in this game. When I think back a few weeks ago when I didn’t have a job, I just keep fighting.”
Hightower was one of 14 players on Sunday’s 53-man roster who weren’t on it for the first game.
Among them was running back Travaris Cadet, who was with the Saints last year but to whom no tender offer for 2015 was made. He started this season with New England but was released after tearing his hamstring.
He then spent time with San Francisco before being cut; the Saints claimed him off waivers Wednesday.
Cadet got in two practices but found himself on the field for the first snap Sunday. He later was on the receiving end of a 44-yard TD pass from Brees and two other catches, plus a carry.
“It’s been a rough year for me — real rough,” Cadet said. “I was pretty much on the street, but at least it gave me time to rehab my injury. If you’re on the couch when the team calls you, you’ll stay on the couch. But if you keep grinding and grinding, good things will happen, like they have for me this week.”
It’s been a fairy-tale season for cornerback Delvin Breaux, the McDonogh 35 graduate who suffered a broken neck in high school that derailed a college career at LSU but who improbably made his way to the Saints, where he has been the best player in the secondary.
On Sunday, Breaux caused one interception, had one of his own, broke up three other passes and had four tackles to help the beleaguered secondary keep the Jaguars in check at least long enough for the offense to establish a 24-0 lead that was never seriously threatened.
“This is as much fun for me today as it was the first week of the season,” the ever-smiling Breaux said. “This is my second opportunity, and I’m going to have fun regardless of whether we win or lose. Today just happened to be a day when we won, and I’m definitely going to celebrating.”
Speaking of second opportunities, receiver Willie Snead spent time on the practice squads of the Browns, Panthers and Saints last year after going undrafted out of Ball State.
He stuck this year, and Snead on Sunday had four catches for 75 yards, giving him 949 for the year and a good shot at getting to 1,000.
“I just wanted to be the next man up,” Snead said.
Snead was the next man up Sunday because Marques Colston, the franchise’s career receiving leader, was inactive with a chest injury. It’s too early to know whether Colston will be able to go next Sunday at Atlanta.
Also inactive Sunday was tackle Zach Strief with an elbow injury. That prevented Strief and Colston from joining Brees and guard Jahri Evans, who came all came to the team in 2006, from probably playing in what is likely their final home game together on a day when they were featured on the program cover.
“We’ve put in a lot of work together,” Evans said. “But none of us know what’s going to happen. It’s really too early to think about that. There were some emotions out there today.”
One team fixture who won’t be present in Atlanta is radio analyst Hokie Gajan. Instead, he will be beginning a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday.
On Sunday, Gajan worked the game wearing a surgical mask to cut down on the risk of infection. A sign on the WWL Radio booth’s door asked visitors to just leave notes instead of coming inside.
“That’s how tough he is,” said Jim Henderson, Gajan’s longtime broadcast partner. “The toughest person I’ve ever met in my life. He did fine today, kept his sense of humor, and you couldn’t tell how tired he was. It was really important for Hokie to be there today.”
That’s why they play the game, too.