PITTSBURGH — No Brandin Cooks ready on the launch pad for a jet sweep. No Brodrick Bunkley eating up space and smothering running backs in the middle of the New Orleans Saints’ line.
No momentum at all after a crucial three-game homestand in which the Saints got skunked, 0-for-3. No reason really to think that New Orleans would come here and get a win over a Steelers team that was pretty much the equal of fellow AFC North dweller Baltimore, which stole the Saints’ car keys Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
So naturally that’s exactly what they did Sunday, driving away from gray and chilly western Pennsylvania in a rented car with a 35-32 victory in a game that really wasn’t that close.
In a season that defies description other than to label the whole confounding thing as “non sequitur” — Latin for “it does not follow” — of course the Saints followed up their worst homestand of the Sean Payton era with a big win. On the road. Outdoors.
A team labeled in the preseason as a Super Bowl contender but fighting to come up for air from Day One, a team tied for first in the NFC South but still two games below .500, a team that couldn’t lose at home until it lost three straight and couldn’t win on the road has now won two in a row on the road.
It’s hard to say which was more critical. Or surprising. The first road win, a month earlier at Carolina, was over the defending NFC South champs and allowed the Saints to get back to 4-4 at the time.
But there were so many losses since. To the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens, plus key pieces of the puzzle like Cooks and Bunkley. Winning here against the Steelers, against a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, who not long ago threw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, with Steelers legend of legends Franco Harris no less going out for the coin toss as an honorary captain, having four decades of Pittsburgh football glory literally staring you in the face, how could they do that?
“It is difficult,” linebacker Junior Galette said. “It isn’t easy, especially against a playoff-caliber team.”
Well, it does not follow. Not to those of us who only get glimpses inside that Saints locker room and flashes of what thoughts fire the emotions of the Saints players.
Under the circumstances, it seemed to be the near impossible, among the most difficult turnarounds the Saints could manage.
“We stay confident,” said tailback Mark Ingram, who dug the cold, tough yards out of the Allegheny hills with 23 carries for 122. “We know when we play good football we can play with the best teams in this league.”
Are the Saints to be re-regarded as one of those teams? That would be reading too much into this win. Way too much.
But the Saints did what good teams do to win on the road. They not only forced two critical turnovers but took advantage of them, the biggest when defensive end Cam Jordan swatted a Roethlisberger pass to himself, dragging the ball to the 15 before Nick Toon smashed and spun his way into the end zone for his first NFL touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Drew Brees.
The score early in the third quarter set a tone for the game as the Saints overcame a sluggish offensive start with 21 straight points for a 21-6 lead that kept New Orleans in command for good. That the Steelers stormed back with two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions in the final three minutes — the last conversion with no time left on a pass to ex-Saints receiver Lance Moore — wasn’t exactly window dressing. But though they Saints weren’t playing their best in those closing minutes, they were playing the percentages to get out with a win that was 99 percent already decided.
“I don’t think that we finish games very well, and I would include today in that category,” said Brees, whose every fifth pass or so was a touchdown (five in all). “That’s not the signature we want to put on the end of this game. (But) we’re going to enjoy this victory because we just beat a very good football team on the road after a lot of adversity for us. We’re going to enjoy this and yet understand how much better we can become.”
That understanding needs to include a lesson learned from the wreck of a homestand the Saints had after winning at Carolina going into this game against Carolina. The 3-8-1 Panthers are a team begging to be put out of its misery, but not so miserable they can’t upset the Saints if they play like they did the previous three weeks.
“What we can’t do is go home and lose our next game to a division opponent,” Galette said. “We have to get a win and take over (the division).”
A hostile takeover of the NFC South does not follow considering the hilly, Pittsburgh-like twists and turns this Saints’ season has taken.
It wouldn’t be expected. Which is maybe what we should expect of the Saints after all.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.