The New Orleans Saints aren’t dead yet.
With buzzards circling in the form of heavy criticism and far-flung speculation about the franchise’s future, the Saints responded by emphatically bouncing back to their feet on Thursday night.
Quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Ben Watson and an opportunistic, attacking defense made the words count by drubbing the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons 31-21, another in a long line of upset wins in the heated rivalry against the hated Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“This is validation. When you can go out and play like we did tonight, on a short week after a miserable loss in Philly on Sunday, and just to put together such a complete game,” Brees said. “For it all to come together like that, it gave us a glimpse of what we can be.”
Everything about the Saints (2-4) looked ripe for the taking against a resurgent Falcons team that surged to the top of the NFC South for new coach Dan Quinn.
New Orleans was beaten and bruised, missing the entire left side of an offensive line that has been plagued by injuries all season and unable to keep Brees off the turf.
And the Saints appeared to have no momentum. The blowout loss in Philadelphia sparked a new round of speculation that Brees and Sean Payton will be gone at the end of this season.
Saints players spent the week rejecting all of those storylines. Then they went out and proved it.
“Bottom-line, it’s Thursday night, prime-time football, it’s a quick turnaround and you’ve got to get ready to go,” Brees said. “It just says a lot about our team.”
An offense that was struggling to score opened the game by marching 80 yards in 12 plays and 5 minutes, 16 seconds, efficiently overwhelming the Atlanta defense despite rookie left tackle Andrus Peat going down with an injury just seven plays into the game.
A special-teams unit that had been wildly inconsistent through the first five weeks struck next on a play that called to mind another legendary Saints victory over the Falcons. Michael Mauti, a special-teams ace signed right before the season, took a punt off of Falcons punter Matt Bosher’s foot, scrambled on top of it and bounded into the end zone for a touchdown that made it 14-0 — all with 2006 hero Steve Gleason watching and smiling from a seat somewhere in the Superdome.
“After Michael Mauti blocked that punt and scored, I looked up on the Jumbotron and saw Steve,” tackle Zach Strief said. “I started crying.”
And a defense that entered the game ranked last in the NFL finally figured out how to harness early momentum. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe forced a fumble in the red zone to stop one second-quarter drive and recovered a dropped snap to end another and the Saints started feeding off the energy in the Superdome.
Emerging star Delvin Breaux turned Julio Jones to a relative nonfactor. A relentless pass rush hurried Matt Ryan all night, led by defensive captain Cam Jordan, who broke out with three sacks, four quarterback hits and a strip-sack he recovered himself to put the icing on the cake in the final minute.
The defense has set the table before this season, only to see the offense fail to capitalize.
This time Brees took advantage, aided by a Watson performance that made Saints fans for at least a week forget about Jimmy Graham, so often mentioned in relation to the offense’s struggles this season.
With Armstead and Peat unavailable and the running game shut down, the Saints started moving the pocket, rolling out Brees, and the veteran navigated the rush well enough to take just one sack and complete 30 of 39 passes for 312 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Watson was the chief beneficiary. Working the soft middle of an Atlanta defense that relies heavily on its corners, Watson caught a career-high 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown on fourth-and-goal in the third quarter, the score handing New Orleans the kind of commanding 24-7 lead it hasn’t enjoyed all season.
Payton’s decision to go for it on fourth down ended up putting the Saints in charge for good.
“That’s a huge momentum-gaining type play in a game like that,” Brees said. “That took some marbles.”
New Orleans never looked back.
For one night, at least, these Saints looked like they’re headed in the right direction. Now, the key is harnessing what New Orleans found against Atlanta.
“Well, look, it’s a start,” Payton said. “There’s some things we’ve got to improve on, and there’s some things we have to be better at, coaching-wise. We’ve got a little time here to really look closely at that.”
For the moment, the Saints can enjoy a win very few saw coming.
And knocking their high-flying rival out of the sky makes it that much sweeter.