CLEVELAND — The Saints can look at their season in one of two ways.
The first option is grim. They are 0-2, and statistics show that only outlier teams make the playoffs after dropping their first two contests. Under this scenario, the team could submit to fate and accept that they’ll be off in time to take a New Year’s vacation.
The view through the other prism is more optimistic. It shows the season as being only two games old. This view shows there is time to turn things around, make the playoffs, and chase a ring. In a few months, the team can look back at the struggles it is currently enduring as a character-building experience.
New Orleans is taking the latter approach.
“We are still together, and we believe in one another,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “Now we’re in a hole and we have to fight our way back.”
Despite the record, there are positives to be found in Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The defense, outside of a few early struggles by cornerback Patrick Robinson, played well up until the final drive of the game, when a coverage breakdown sent the Saints to defeat.
But before that, after a week full of questions and voiced concerns about this team’s fundamentals, New Orleans silenced the critics who questioned it throughout the week after a shaky performance in a Week 1 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Outside of a few players hitting the wrong gap on a couple running plays early in the game, the Saints defense was solid. It did not miss tackles, mostly covered well, and generated enough pressure to make Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer uncomfortable.
“I’m frustrated, but at the same time I felt everyone playing really hard,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I felt we were getting to the ball, I felt everyone tackled better. There were hardly any missed tackles — that got cleaned up quick. ... I don’t know, man. I’m still optimistic. We still got 14 games to go.”
Offensively, the Saints were shutdown on their first four drives, with each resulting in punts, but they turned it on late in the first half and kept the pressure on throughout the rest of the game.
Jimmy Graham was unstoppable once he got going, tying a career high by catching 10 passes, producing 118 yards and two touchdowns. And the running game was extremely potent. Mark Ingram had 11 carries for 83 yards, and both Khiry Robinson (eight carries) and wide receiver Brandin Cooks (two carries) picked up 31 yards.
If a few things had gone differently against Atlanta or Cleveland, the Saints could easily be 2-0, and all of the issues they’ve faced would seem minimal instead of potentially backbreaking.
“We were one play away in each of these games from being 2-0 as opposed to 0-2,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “That hurts. It’s frustrating. I know how hard we work.
“Obviously, the expectation level coming into it, but now we’ve just got to bear down, stay together and understand that if you keep doing things the right way, good things are going to happen. We just need to break the seal.”
But is saying one play oversimplifying things too much?
“No, it’s literally one play away,” Brees said. “Of course, we’re all going to look at the film and we’re going to say, ‘I could have done better here, here, here and here.’ There’s always a list of things that each guy can look at and say, ‘This is what I can do better individually and this is what we need to do better as an offense, as a defense or as a team.’”
That one play this week could be the audible the Saints negated with a little more than three minutes left on third-and-5, or the broken coverage that led to Andrew Hawkins’ 28-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal.
If either of those things had gone differently, this team is 1-1. There are many other plays that can be located in the Week 1 loss as missed opportunities. Because of that, even with all of the mistakes, this team believes it can be one of those outlier teams that bucks the curse of 0-2.
“We’re not discouraged at all,” pass rusher Junior Galette said. “I have the confidence and believe in this defense, offense, and special teams. We’re going to get this right and we’re going to be the team that everyone expects us to be, the team we expect to be.”