INDIANAPOLIS — Midway through the fourth quarter, during a lull as Mark Ingram was being tended to with a minor injury, Drew Brees trotted over to Sean Payton on the sideline to discuss the upcoming third-and-8 play from their 3-yard line.
They knew what was happening. A 27-0 lead that could have been at least 31-0 were it not for a missed extra point and a Brees interception in the back of the end zone had halfway melted into something that was trending toward tragic.
For most of the game, the Indianapolis Colts barely had a pulse. Their offense was (Andrew) Luck, pass and kick. Or turnover. But two trips down the field on passes that Delvin Breaux tripped over turned into huge touchdown strikes from Luck to T.Y. Hilton.
Brees wanted to get one of those back.
“I just felt like it was the right time,” Brees said afterward. “Sean and I are talking, and I say, ‘Let’s just run by these guys. Let’s just throw a go.’ ”
So “Geaux route” was the call, and Brees uncorked one of his deft long spirals to Brandin Cooks flying up the Saints sideline that he tracked down for a 47-yard gain.
“That flipped the field,” Brees explained. “It changes the momentum and just does a lot for you. We were going to play aggressive, and we know we have the guys to do it.”
The drive ended up fizzling. The Saints eventually punted, and the Colts added one more touchdown pass to make it 27-21 with three minutes left. But that’s where Indianapolis’ Luck ran out.
The Saints’ Marcus Murphy recovered a mad scramble onside kick, then Brees found his old familiar favorite pair of hands, Marques Colston, who came down with a 20-yard reception on third-and-11 from the Colts 47 just before the two-minute warning that allowed the Saints to run out the clock.
That pass was aggressive, too. Aggressive was Sunday’s watchword for New Orleans, a line of attack perhaps spiced with just a dash of desperation.
It may not look like it, but there’s a HUGE difference between a 3-4 record and a 2-5 record.
The Saints being 3-4, with wins in three of their past four games, gives New Orleans momentum, a positive vibe and a bolt of confidence going into a winnable home game next Sunday with Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning’s mostly mediocre New York Giants.
A win there gets the Saints back to .500, just where they scrambled to get to a season ago out of a similar quicksand kind of start. And 4-4, against one of the lighter second-half NFL schedules around, gives New Orleans at least hope of forcing their way back into playoff contention.
So they threw long, high-risk, high-reward passes. They challenged two pass incompletion calls that went against them in the first half, leaving them without any challenges for the second half should a crucial situation arise. Foolhardy decisions as it turned out, but symbolic of the Saints’ mindset.
After a denied challenge, the Saints pulled an aggressive fake field goal play called “Bulldog” out of the trick bag: Former Louisiana Tech Bulldog Luke McCown threw to former Georgia Bulldog Ben Watson for 25 yards to set up a 1-yard Khiry Robinson run for New Orleans’ first touchdown.
“That’s our team,” McCown said. “That’s the mantra of Sean Payton and Drew Brees.”
That wasn’t exactly the mantra of the Saints’ season-opening loss at the Arizona Cardinals. The Saints looked somewhat unconfident and definitely unaggressive, willing to let the Cardinals dictate terms and tempo in what wound up a 31-19 defeat.
That was followed by a 26-19 home loss to Tampa Bay and a 27-22 loss at Carolina which McCown had to start for an injured Brees. “All is Lost” would have been a good title for the Saints’ season lowlight video at that point.
But they found something, digging deep for a gritty 26-20 overtime win over Dallas. A discouraging, mistake-filled 39-17 loss at Philadelphia followed, like a spinout into the wall in Turn 3 at Indy’s famous speedway.
But the Saints pounded out the fenders, reinflated the tires, taped up the front end and got back in the race. The whole thing looks like hell at times, and it may be missing a rear-view mirror and leaking oil, but it’s still running, which is more than you thought you’d be saying about the Saints at this juncture.
By no means is this one of the NFL’s best at this point. Seven NFC teams have better records than New Orleans as of Sunday evening. But there is hope, life in the football-mad city yet, and that’s more than dwelled there just a couple of weeks ago.
“You look at our first three losses, and we’re a play here or a play there from winning them,” McCown said. “Mentally we didn’t go in the tank. You’re 0-3, but you start looking at what you can do to change a few plays to help you win. You bow your neck up and correct some things. We’ve just been playing more efficient football in all phases.”
Efficiency and assertiveness and a lot of pressure on Luck (four sacks, 10 hits, 12 passes disrupted) added up to a win the Saints had to have.
Now they have to have the next one.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.