In their tomb-like locker room at Ford Field following their devastating come-from-ahead loss to the Detroit Lions, the Saints looked for all the world like a team that wouldn’t have put up much of a fight if someone had shoveled dirt on them right there.
New Orleans did everything right for 56 minutes but was unable to win a game it mostly dominated, limping away with a 24-23 loss. Being blown out on the road by the Dallas Cowboys earlier this season was one thing, but this was a brutal psychological blow to overcome.
These are professional football players, tough men, but how do you come back from something like that?
If you’re the Saints, you come home to your fortress, your Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where New Orleans is now 7-0 in Sunday night games with Drew Brees quarterbacking and unbeatable in general over the past two seasons that Sean Payton has coached.
This time, the Saints finished the job, finishing off the Packers 44-23 with superb offensive execution and a defense that improved throughout the game.
“We played well a week ago,” Payton said, “but a few big plays kept us from winning. We responded the right way.”
The result was a rejuvenating victory that for the first time made the Saints look like the team that everyone back in the preseason thought was a Super Bowl contender.
Frankly, it was about time, and no less an expert on the subject than Brees thought so.
“It’s like my grandfather always said,” he explained. “There’s three types of people in the world: those that make it happen, those that watch it happen and those that wake up one day and say, ‘What the heck happened?’ I feel like all this year we’ve been waking up and saying, ‘What the heck happened?’
“It’s about time we made it happen.”
Maybe the Saints are rounding into the team we thought they could be and maybe they aren’t. The Saints still have a lot of proving — and winning — to do.
But the Packers certainly are in that category, a team that was rolling into New Orleans with four straight wins led by a star in Aaron Rodgers who was the NFL’s fourth highest-rated quarterback.
It’s a simple game, really. You affect the quarterback, even one as much on the mark as Rodgers, and you win. That the Saints did, turning a serve-and-volley first half to their advantage with an opportunistic and decisive third quarter.
Third-and-goal for the Packers at the Saints’ 5. After stopping New Orleans on a questionable fourth-and-2 run at the Packers 43, Green Bay definitely looked like it was driving for another go-ahead score tied 16-16. But Rodgers’ pass for Andrew Quarless was broken up by Corey White and snatched out of midair by linebacker David Hawthorne, who returned it to the 12.
Brees’ arm has been widely questioned by some smart alecks — OK, me — this season, but it turned out it was his decision-making process that was the problem, not the weapon he wielded. Both the arm and the clever mind it’s connected to were in sync Sunday night, as demonstrated by Brees’ 50-yard guided-missile strike to Brandin Cooks. That gave the Saints a 23-16 lead at the 5:35 mark of the third that they wouldn’t surrender.
The Packers were credited with a first down at their 41 on the ensuing possession on a pass from Rodgers to Davante Adams, but Payton threw a timely challenge flag. The ball was respotted about a foot from the marker, and for want of a foot the Packers were toast. Former Dutchtown running back Eddie Lacy, a tanker truck most of the night, banged off backup right guard Lane Taylor (in for injured starter T.J. Lang) and right into a bear hug from defensive end Tyrunn Walker, who wrestled him down for no gain.
The Saints took full advantage, with Brees finding Jimmy Graham for a 23-yard touchdown pass and a 30-16 lead at the 2:06 mark.
In the fourth quarter, the Saints harassed Rodgers into another interception. Akiem Hicks flushed him right and into an off-kilter throw that glanced off Adams’ tormented hands and into the diving arms of White. It was Rodgers’ second interception after throwing just one in the Packers’ first seven games.
The Saints cashed in that gift certificate, too, as Brees found a wide-open Josh Hill on a 2-yard TD pass for an insurmountable 37-16 lead with just under 10 minutes left.
There was a ripple of tension in the Dome when the Packers drove for a Rodgers touchdown keeper to cut the lead to 37-23. The memory of the Motor City Meltdown still haunts. But the Saints caught a break on the onside kick, recovering the ball in a scrum at the Packers’ 32.
Only a diehard Cheesehead would say the Saints’ didn’t deserve a break to go their way.
Now 3-4, the Saints are headed to Carolina on Thursday night for what is a crucial NFC South game for the second straight year. The Panthers are, putting it kindly, a wobbly division leader at 3-4-1, a scant half-game in front of the Saints after Sunday’s 13-9 loss to Seattle.
After all they’ve been through this season, the disappointment and the tumult and the self-inflicted wounds, that the Saints are in position to be in solo first place by late Thursday night with half a season to go is rather remarkable.
It also makes writing their epitaph completely premature.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.