TAMPA, Fla. — To quote that great fictitious New Orleans Saint Forrest Gump (he played for the club in the book sequel, “Gump & Co.”), it was like olden times again Sunday for the guys in black and gold.
Drew Brees was throwing touchdown passes to Marques Colston and marching up the NFL record book. The defense looked like, well, a defense, rather than 11 guys simply occupying space. And the running game, led by a once-cut Saint named Tim Hightower, was grinding out tough yards when New Orleans simply had to have them. When no one else could get them.
In short, the Saints looked like a good team in their 24-17 victory at Tampa Bay, a team that had things to play for instead of the other way around, which was really the case.
“We did the things today that are winning football,” Brees said. “We protected the football, (were) running the ball effectively, defense doing a great job ... finishing drives ... just all those things that are considered winning football.”
None of this was against what you would call a great Tampa Bay team, though it was a Buccaneers squad that had won three of its previous four to get to 6-6 and position itself in the hunt for a wild-card berth. A Bucs squad that needed a win over a Saints team that looked ripe for another fall to keep its postseason hopes alive.
The Saints stole their division rival’s momentum and their hope, taking advantage of Tampa Bay’s mistakes and misfires and not giving it too much kindling to start a fire that would burn down New Orleans’ chances of victory, as was the case against Carolina last week.
So many things have gone wrong for the Saints this season. Injuries. Free agency and draft moves that haven’t panned out. Having to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at midseason because the defense was so laughably inept that 11 cardboard cutouts might have slowed up the opposition more.
But whatever you say about these Saints, where they’ve been and where they’re going as a franchise, you can’t say they’ve quit. They followed up a humbling 24-6 loss at Houston two weeks ago when they were shut out of the end zone for the first time in the Sean Payton-Brees era with a painfully close 41-38 loss to the now 13-0 Panthers.
Do we actually live in a world where the Carolina Panthers may go 16-0?
It would have been understandable, maybe even forgivable, if the Saints came here to bask in the Florida sun and begin the long, slow fade to a postseason vacation. If so, the talk could have truly begun in earnest about whether it’s time to start breaking up the Saints’ long-standing triumvirate of Payton, Brees and general manager Mickey Loomis and start selling off the pieces like Ma Bell back in the 1980s.
But the Saints aren’t an illegal monopoly. They are a football team, one made of people who have pride and desire. On Sunday, the Saints proved that pride still mattered.
“The response this week was one of the things we talked about,” Payton said. “You’re concerned as a coach because you understand that you get close and yet you have to come back and go to work. It’s kind of the way life is, though. Our response was good this week; our effort was good. We did a good job of being smart, too.”
Smart was letting Brees get off to another molten hot start, completing 13 of his 14 passes — two of them short scoring tosses to Colston, his “Mister Reliable.” They now have 71 touchdown connections together, fifth-best all time. Brees now has 421 touchdown passes, passing the great Dan Marino for fourth-most in NFL history.
Smart was putting the ball in Hightower’s hands 28 times as he rushed for 85 yards, including a 4-yard gain on third-and-3 with just over a minute left to give the Saints the first down they needed to run out the clock.
Smart was Dennis Allen’s defense, playing tough and sticky run and pass defense (mostly) without fouling, except for some critical roughness penalties against Kyle Wilson on the Bucs’ first touchdown drive.
“I think we did a phenomenal job putting pressure on (Jameis Winston),” defensive end Cameron Jordan said, “making him release a little bit earlier than he wanted to. I’m just excited about the win.”
Detractors will ask, justly, what the Saints have to be excited about. The best they do is finish 8-8. Their playoff hopes are microscopic at best.
But if you saw Payton sprint off the podium after his postgame presser and shake hands and hug friends who came to watch Sunday, then head back into his locker room with a huge smile on his face, you understand what this win means.
Sometimes it’s just good to feel good about yourself, to feel you have a chance again to build on this win with one next Monday night against Detroit and think there’s at least a chance for it to turn into something positive.
Just like in olden times.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.