The New Orleans Saints’ season had reached a point by Thursday night where it seemed that it would take some sort of exorcism or Eastern mysticism to get them a win.
Or, perhaps, an appearance by the most sainted of former Saints, Steve Gleason.
Gleason was on the field before Thursday night’s game with the Atlanta Falcons to receive the George Halas Award from the Pro Football Writers of America. The award goes to the “NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed.”
Two questions come to mind:
1. Who could be more deserving than Gleason, cruelly struck down by ALS and now confined to a wheelchair?
2. What in the world took so long for Gleason to be so honored?
Then again, timing is everything. Maybe Gleason left a little magic on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf before leaving the field he honored with his play.
Nothing pointed to the Saints being able to pull out of their 1-4 nosedive against the 5-0 Falcons other than some divine intervention. Not after giving up 519 yards and looking bad doing it Sunday in a 39-17 loss at Philadelphia.
Four days later, the Saints were back at it, saving their season with a 31-21 upset of their most bitter archrival and no doubt taking wicked pleasure at ending their unbeaten run.
It was partially improbable, mostly incredible and a fair measure unbelievable.
And like a totally magical Saints-Falcons game nine years ago, it turned on one huge special-teams play.
The Saints took the opening drive and marched down the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf like they used to do. The Falcons came back and got all the way to the Saints’ 34, but a botched snap by Matt Ryan handed New Orleans the ball after a 5-yard loss.
The Saints punted, but it only served to pin the Falcons deep after Kasim Edebali sacked Ryan for an 11-yard loss at the Atlanta 16. From there, Michael Mauti channeled his inner Gleason and poured through the line like Sherman through, well, Atlanta, smothering the punt right off Matt Bosher’s foot and taking it 4 yards into the end zone for a shocking 14-0 lead.
Cut to a shot of a grinning Gleason. The dear man who blocked that never-to-be-forgotten punt in the Saints’ first post-Katrina home game against Atlanta in 2006 looked like he was having quite a time as the Superdome came joyfully unglued around him.
“Hey, Falcons,” Gleason gleefully taunted on Twitter. “#NeverPunt.”
“The cool thing is Steve was here to see that,” Drew Brees said. “That brought back some good memories.”
No better memories than for Mauti himself.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” he said. “I was in the stands when Steve Gleason blocked the punt against Atlanta. It was a special feeling. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I was sitting in that seat up there. To live that out is something special.
“He’s one of my heroes. To do something like that against Atlanta like he did is something that I’ve been dreaming about for a long time.”
The Falcons didn’t punt the rest of the first half. After an impressive 80-yard drive to pull within 14-7, they were much more content to shoot themselves in the cleats.
Atlanta started ripping off big chunks of yards, but it all just ended up in some slapstick results. On second-and-6 from the Saints 26, Tevin Coleman steamed around right end for a big gain but fumbled, Brandon Browner recovering at his team’s 9. On the Falcons’ next drive, Ryan dropped a low-powered shotgun snap on third-and-8 from the Saints’ 14, the ball recovered this time by Dannell Ellerbe.
The Falcons had a substantial 265-174 edge in total offense at halftime but had just one touchdown and two red-zone turnovers to show for their cosmetic efforts.
It was the Falcons who came into this game with the reputation for being turnover-forcing fanatics.
But they didn’t have a reputation for being great pass rushers — they only sacked Brees one time to the five times the Saints brought down Ryan — and Brees didn’t give them many chances to make New Orleans give the ball away.
It looked like someone had hypnotized Brees into thinking he was still throwing passes to Jimmy Graham as many times as he targeted Ben Watson. By the end of the night, they had connected 10 times for 127 yards, over the middle, up the sideline, seemingly everywhere.
Graham, by the way, has 21 catches for 204 yards in Seattle.
Late third quarter. Fourth-and-goal at the 2. Brees froze the Falcons with a hard play-action fake to fullback Austin Johnson, then lobbed a pass to Watson, who couldn’t have been more open in the back of the end zone had the Falcons left early for their charter back home. (Everyone’s flight goes to Atlanta.)
After the catch, Watson slowly sank to his knees, looking like he was giving thanks for such a huge moment in startling contrast to such a hugely disappointing start to the Saints’ season.
After six straight home losses dating to 2014, the Saints now have two straight spirited home wins, both in prime time, first over the hated Cowboys and now over the even-more-hated Falcons.
Maybe it’s not just LSU’s football team that plays better at night.
Whatever the time, when the Saints come home Nov. 1 to play the Giants, just make sure Gleason has a ticket.