Just before kickoff, the familiar chant went up from the plaza to the terrace, lusty and defiant and just a tad liquored up on Hurricanes:
“Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?”
Six years ago, it was former LSU and Cowboys linebacker Bradie James who offered a stinging retort after Dallas stopped the Saints’ 13-0 start cold with a 24-17 win.
“Who dat?” James asked mockingly. “We dat!”
That was a different time.
Sunday night, the Saints were a far different team.
The Saints came in 0-for-2015, not having even won in the preseason, 0-3 when the games really count. The losses mounted, weighing down this franchise like the dead money under its salary cap had taken on real, leaden form. They threatened to capsize the still-prideful ballclub, perhaps leaving it in the offseason to be carved up, its glittering pieces sold for scrap to the highest bidders.
But finally, after all this time, dey dat once again, winners over the always-hated high hats from Dallas 26-20 in overtime, a redeeming victory that restores just a flicker of hope to a season that looked like it would die young.
It happened in the most unlikely of ways. The most trying of ways. The first win of this tortured campaign couldn’t have gone down any other way, could it?
After quarters of what looked like trench warfare, neither team able to budge each other’s defenses for more than a few yards, the Saints took a 20-13 lead with four minutes left, only to have the Tony Romo-less Cowboys answer a little more than two minutes later.
Back came Drew Brees and the Saints, the savvy veteran driving them forward with the most prayed-over right arm in Louisiana. Brees and his team looked like the Saints of old as he nudged them down to the 12 to set up an almost automatic 30-yard Zach Hocker field goal with 16 seconds left.
Hocker hacked up a hairball and hooked his drive left, doink city, straight into the upright. Overtime loomed. Doom, met gloom.
On the sideline, Brees had a thought, somehow still a believer after all the losses and the injured throwing arm and the hellish bad breaks.
“This is not how God intended us to win this game,” he said afterward. “He’s got another plan.”
Brees’ team won with the plan that seemed relegated to the Saints’ mausoleum: the long bomb.
For four quarters, or at least until Brees threw 30 yards to Brandon Coleman at the Cowboys’ 17 to set up the Hocker field goal try, it seemed like it was against a new Saints mission rule to throw the ball vertically.
But on second-and-10 from the Saints 20 in overtime, there was Brees, dropping back, planting his right heel on the 11 and delivering that familiar graceful payload right into the arms of C.J. Spiller. The recently acquired but often-injured Spiller didn’t have to break stride, catching the ball at the Saints 38 and leading Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox on a futile chase up the right sideline as he scored the winning touchdown.
Oh, yes, it just happened to be Brees’ 400th career touchdown pass as well, coming in such dramatic fashion it would have seemed over-the-top outlandish if written into a Hollywood script about the wounded gladiator making good once again.
“I did think God intended No. 400 to be the one that wins this game,” Brees said.
From someone else, that might have sounded absurd.
But not from Brees, the Saint of Saints.
Preach, brother. Preach.
It’s just one win, and the Saints are still 1-3. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are still an NFC South-leading 4-0, each coming off emphatic victories Sunday that kept them unbeaten.
But again, there is a glimmer of life in the old town yet. It showed in Spiller finally being a real, valuable contributor to the Saints’ cause. It showed on the Cowboys’ first drive, when the Saints were finally able to gainfully employ free safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, three key players Saints fans had begun to despair that they would ever see take meaningful snaps again.
“Now,” Spiller said, “we can see what we can do.”
After a month of football futility, football fortune smiled on the Saints. They won the toss in overtime, won the game and did so with a few more talented pieces to work with than they had when this season started.
“It’s our first win,” Brees said. “Hopefully the first of many.”
It’s one win. One week. But at least for now, hope and the Saints don’t look like such strangers again.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.