Here’s something you haven’t seen from the New Orleans Saints lately:
A bad taste in their mouths following a huge victory over a quality opponent.
“I’m trying to be happy today,” coach Sean Payton said. “But it’s hard when you play like that.”
“Really disappointed with the way we finished the game offensively,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
Even the practically giggly Cam Jordan, cinching up his Justice League-logoed belt in front of his locker like a third-grader on free dress day, had to compartmentalize his happiness after Sunday’s hard-to-define 52-38 victory over the Detroit Lions.
“Did I enjoy every minute of it?” the Saints star defensive end asked. “For sure. That being said, we have a lot to clean up for next week.”
Don’t they, though.
This game was like a Mardi Gras parade. Everyone went home happy with what they got — substitute a victory for beads, doubloons and the odd stuffed giraffe — but there’s a lot of debris left to sweep up.
• Three turnovers, the Saints' first giveaways of the season, one of them a Brees’ pick six that massive Detroit defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson sucked in with his gravitational pull near the goal line.
• Thirteen penalties for 118 yards, so many one has to believe this officiating crew thought it was the halftime entertainment.
• A 74-yard punt return touchdown by Jamal Agnew, part of the Lions’ stunning second-half comeback from 45-10 down to make it 45-38 with 6:41 left.
But before the Saints could manage to out-Auburn the Auburn Tigers from their epic collapse at LSU on Saturday, the game’s original arc was restored. A la Robinson a few moments earlier, Jordan tipped a Matt Stafford interception to himself in the end zone, putting the Saints back up two touchdowns with 5:04 to play. It was the third of New Orleans’ franchise record three defensive touchdowns, following Kenny Vaccaro’s early fumble recovery and Marshon Lattimore’s 27-yard interception return.
“It’s fun when you’re forcing turnovers and getting off the field,” Vaccaro said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been part of that.”
It’s been a while since the Saints have been over .500. A long while. The last time was the end of the 2013 season, 1,386 days before Sunday, to put a fine chronological point on it. According to the Saints’ pregame radio show, all 31 of the other NFL franchises have been over .500 at some point (at least 1-0) since then.
That’s kind of sad, but the Saints have a chance to turn their postgame frowns upside down. Here’s why:
1. The NFC is wide open, and a 3-2 New Orleans team is in the thick as much as anyone. A glance at the conference standings must have late NFL Commissioner Pete “Mr. Parity” Rozelle smiling down from that great luxury suite in the sky. Fifteen of the 16 NFC teams have at least two losses, save the 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles. In the NFC South, New Orleans is just a half-game behind 4-2 Carolina and owns an early tiebreaker. Atlanta is 3-2 (3-3 if you still count that Super Bowl meltdown against New England — zing!) and Tampa Bay is 2-3.
2. Not to rejoice over anyone’s injuries, but the Saints’ upcoming schedule got a lot less daunting Sunday when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone against Minnesota. That means when the Saints travel to Lambeau Field next week they’ll likely be going up against seldom-used third-year backup Brett Hundley. Apparently, Packers coach Mike McCarthy quickly shot down the idea of hastily signing a free agent like Colin Kaepernick. New Orleans follows that trip with a home game Oct. 29 against Chicago and rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who was a stellar 8 of 16 for 113 yards Sunday in the Bears’ 27-24 overtime win at Baltimore. That stat line doesn’t exactly put the fear of Mike Ditka into anyone.
3. After that, the Saints host Tampa Bay, travel to face a decent Buffalo team, host Washington and travel to face the Los Angeles Rams. All this before the schedule really heats up again with a home game against Carolina, both games with Atlanta and a trip to Tampa sandwiched around a home game against the New York Jets.
In other words, if the Saints can continue to play opportunistic defense, keep Brees standing upright in the pocket and don’t give away any more special teams touchdowns, there is a realistic opportunity for then to go on a nifty little run through the middle part of the schedule.
Just be the first-half Saints from Sunday instead of the second-half Saints.
“The goal is to play football like we did in the first half,” said Mark Ingram, who amassed 114 of the Saints’ 193 rushing yards in their suddenly fearsome ground game. “We will win a lot of games if we do that.”
It’s a big if, to be sure. But for New Orleans, opportunity is there for the taking.