Sixteen and a half points.
That’s how big a favorite the Saints were over the New York Jets on Sunday. It was the biggest point spread in New Orleans history, notwithstanding the many times the uber-underdog Saints flew out to San Francisco for the privilege of getting torched by Joe Montana and the 49ers when New Orleans resided in the NFC West.
The Saints were supposed to come home to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and take out their mountain of frustrations on the hapless Jets stemming from their Dec. 7 loss at Atlanta. Those Jets, with starting quarterback Josh McCown and his broken left hand watching glumly from the visitors’ sideline, were supposed to be as grounded a jet ensnared in Sunday’s power failure at the Atlanta airport.
(No jokes about the Falcons blowing a fuse against New England in last season’s Super Bowl, please. Oh, all right. Just one.)
But you could feel the malaise as the game began, the sensation of stepping on the gas pedal and finding no acceleration beneath your feet. The dreary and drippy conditions outside the Superdome, the kind of South Louisiana day when King Humidity has everyone in his clammy grip, seemed to permeate the play on the field.
Some games are just destined to be endured.
The Saints did win the game, 31-19. But it was an utter slog, a turnover and penalty-marred morass. And if you bet on the Saints to cover what was by NFL standards an enormous point spread, it was utter &@*$%!.
“First off, it was good to get the win,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose pursed lips told you it wasn’t that good to his eye. “I didn’t feel like this was one of our better games.”
Payton’s players were quick to agree.
“We had stretches where we played like we wanted to play,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said, “but overall it was not to our satisfaction. We allowed them to stay in the game too long. We did not neutralize their run game. We needed to make (backup quarterback) Bryce Petty beat us.”
But, in the end …
“We were able to win the game,” Payton said.
“We got the win,” Rankins said.
“You’ve got to fight human nature sometimes,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
Brees’ quote was in response to a question about whether he allows himself to do any scoreboard-watching during a game, especially as the regular season thunders to a dramatic close. But it also applies to being expected to just bully someone into submission and finding life (and football) rarely follows the script.
The Saints jumped out to a 10-0 lead and appeared to be on their way before the Jets ground out their best drive of the day: a 12-play, 75-yard march to make it 10-7 in the second quarter thanks to 10 runs and one critical 15-yard pass interference penalty on strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.
New Orleans never trailed, but it never really could rid itself from the Jet threat either, not until Mark Ingram broke free on a 50-yard touchdown run with 1:33 left to play for the game’s final points.
At times the Saints sputtered on offense. After linebacker Craig Robertson intercepted a tipped Petty pass, New Orleans gave it right back on one of two Brandon Coleman fumbles in the red zone. It started to make you wonder what might have been if McCown, a 67-percent passer this season, were healthy.
“There were opportunities to distance ourselves and score points,” Brees said. “We made it harder than I think it had to be, and yet, when we needed to put together a drive and make plays at the end, we were able to do that.”
In a drive that arguably saved the Saints' divisional hopes, they traveled 64 yards in nine plays to score on a 4-yard Brees-to-Michael Thomas touchdown pass with 7:39 remaining, this after Thomas had two touchdowns called back on video reviews.
Was it an impressive win? No. But this is the NFL, where the disparity even between the teams with double-digit wins like the Saints (10-4) and the teams with losing records like the Jets (5-8) is thin. As Billy Joel once sang, sometimes just surviving is the noble fight.
That’s especially true in the superheated NFC South. Carolina beat Green Bay 31-24 Sunday to match the Saints at 10-4, though New Orleans’ season sweep of the Panthers gives the Saints the tiebreaker for the divisional title. The Falcons (8-5), provided they got out of their city’s darkened international airport (I’m sure they did) actually control their own destiny, starting with Monday night’s game at Tampa Bay. If they win, the Saints-Falcons Christmas Eve showdown in the Superdome looms as one of the biggest games here since the Super Bowl-winning run of 2009.
Much better to win and find fault with your effort than to lose. The Saints know that feeling all too well from the past three years of going 7-9. With two weeks to go, teams like the Jets are playing out the string while all the Saints’ goals are still alive.
Point spreads can take a hike.