Corey White cringed when told he was the hero of the night.
He didn’t see it that way. Yes, he turned pregame jeers into raucous cheers by taking part in two plays that turned Sunday’s shootout with the Green Bay Packers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome into an harder-than-it-looked 44-23 victory. But White doesn’t want the credit.
It was a team win, one that made a statement and created a possible turning point for a season that appeared to be withering away after last week’s loss to the Detroit Lions that was in part a result of White surrendering a 73-yard touchdown.
“It was a team effort,” White said. “The offense did a good job complementing turnovers, and we did a good job creating turnovers.”
With the win, the Saints improve to 3-4 and are in position to move into first place by beating the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C. New Orleans’ win was the first by an NFC South team since Week 5, when it beat Tampa Bay and the Panthers dropped Chicago.
New Orleans did not immediately run away with the game. It was a slow yet frantic process that required both patience and the will to persevere.
At first it appeared to be more of the same. Another night that was going to retold with another “blah-blah-blah, the Saints lost and the defense played poorly.”
It looked like Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was going to stomp the last bit of hope out of New Orleans and leave the Saints to wander as a zombie team for another week.
He opened things up by connecting with Randall Cobb on a 70-yard touchdown, and he set up a field goal on a 67-yard screen pass to Eddie Lacy. By the end of the first quarter, he had amassed 203 passing yards.
But the Saints managed to keep pace and went into halftime with the game tied at 16, thanks in part to making three promising drives result in field goals. New Orleans bided its time and built its lead in the second half with the help of White, an unlikely hero, who was directly responsible for two interceptions.
The first came on a pass he tipped away from Andrew Quarless and into the arms of linebacker David Hawthorne at the goal line late in the third quarter. The Saints took advantage and quickly added a touchdown on a 50-yard pass to Brandin Cooks (six catches, 94 yards, two total touchdowns).
Two series later, following a Jimmy Graham touchdown, White intercepted another pass which led to a Josh Hill touchdown that put New Orleans up 37-16 and capped a 24-0 run.
“Definitely it takes something out of the offense when you do that,” Hawthorne said. “It was a big momentum changer for us. That’s what we needed. All week we’ve preached turnovers and executing. That’s been our Achilles’ heel lately.”
Rodgers (28-of-39, 418 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) took less than two minutes to set the tone for this game and let the Saints secondary know that he managed to smuggle high-caliber weaponry on Green Bay’s flight to New Orleans. After firing a few blanks to start the game, he stepped around pressure by defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, climbed the pocket and hit Cobb on the right sideline over Keenan Lewis for a 70-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
From there, Drew Brees (27-of-32, 311 yards, three touchdowns) and Rodgers went back and forth, amassing more than a combined 700 passing yards. But after racking up all those yards in the first half, the Packers offense operated at its normal high-powered clip, instead of a super-charged one.
While it appeared Rodgers’ hamstring or leg was giving him issues in the second half, the New Orleans defense deserves credit for stepping up and slowing the Green Bay attack.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, who struggled to generate pressure during the early portion of the season after recording 12.5 sacks last year, came to life and made things uncomfortable for Rodgers. He sacked Rodgers on Green Bay’s second drive to force a field goal, then wrapped up the quarterback on a third-and-17 play and forced him to throw an incompletion on the run to force a field goal that gave the Packers a 13-10 lead.
Jordan recorded another sack in the fourth quarter on the play before White’s interception.
It was a day for the recently maligned and the always-steady running game, led by Mark Ingram (24 carries, 172 yards), to shine. And a day for the Saints to silence much of the disrespect they have received during their slow start.
Whether it was a sign of disrespect or one of creativity, Green Bay did some curious things early in the game that ultimately bit it later on.
On the second series of the game, the Packers brought linebacker Julius Peppers on the field, lined him up at tight end and attempted to throw him a pass on a second-down play in the red zone. After an unsuccessful third-down play, Green Bay settled for a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Green Bay attempted an unsuccessful onside kick, giving the Saints a short field that they used to add a field goal.
While it could be viewed as a sign of their opponent taking them less than seriously, the Saints did not view it that way.
“We know (coach Mike) McCarthy likes to win — he’s not going to play to lose; he’s going to play to win,” White said. “We expected some trick plays, onside kicks; we expected it all.”
Now, after this performance, perhaps people can start expecting the Saints to win and rejoin the ranks of teams with living, breathing playoff hopes.
This was New Orleans’ statement, a message to other teams, as well as themselves, that this squad can be what it set out to be when the season began.
“Without question,” Brees said. “It’s been a lot of time coming. Obviously we’ve had our fair share of struggles early on here. We’ve lost some heartbreakers.
“All we talked about all week long is coming together as a team and playing a complete game as a team — come out here and don’t look at the scoreboard. Just worry about execution. Each series, each play, one at a time. It was a perfect representation of that.”