These are the New Orleans Saints you think of in recent years:
A graceful, pass-first team, but easily pushed when it came to shove, especially when the Saints stepped outside of their climate-controlled dome home.
These are the New Orleans Saints of 2017:
Gritty, opportunistic and as eager to run the ball (30 times Sunday against the Chicago Bears) as they are to throw it (28). And they can take a hike, as they did to far-off damp and chilly London or not-so-far-off damp and chilly Green Bay and walk back home to New Orleans with a “W.”
Sunday the hardly-perfect-but-hard-to-beat Saints were on display again in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In a tough, grinding game of hard knocks and sometimes brutal plays — see Chicago tight end Zach Miller’s broken leg, or on second thought don’t — a game frankly played in the key of ugly that suited the Bears best, New Orleans got the better of its visitors from way up I-55.
As the late Fats Domino belted out “When the Saints Go Marching In” over the Superdome’s P.A. system, his words and music poured out over thousands of his happy hometown brethren.
It may not have been a beautiful ballad, this 20-12 Saints victory. But in the hard world of professional football, all that matters is you’re in that winning number when the week is over. The Saints have excelled at that lately, moving to 5-2 and staying in sole possession of first place in the NFC South with their fifth straight win.
“No one, three weeks from now, is going to ask the Bears how they beat Carolina,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, wearing the name “Fats” in white letters on his black windbreaker. He referred to Chicago’s 17-3 win last week on the strength of two defensive touchdowns. “They’re just going to know they beat Carolina.
“Five weeks from now, this will be a win. What is most important is that we can clean up the mistakes so down the road it doesn’t cost you a game that becomes more significant.”
Significantly, the Saints won despite the following:
• Running back Mark Ingram's two fourth-quarter fumbles, the first scuttling the Saints’ chances to at least kick a field goal and go up 20-6 and giving Chicago a possession it used to make it a 17-12 game with 3:58 remaining.
• Allowing big plays of 50, 46 and 45 yards to a typically inept Bears offense that got 102 yards rushing from Jordan Howard.
• Drew Brees became the third quarterback in NFL history to soar past 6,000 career completions and 68,000 career passing yards, but for the first time since Oct. 4, 2009 against the New York Jets, the Saints won without him throwing a touchdown pass.
Ah, 2009. The shining season of the Saints’ Super Bowl triumph. Any parallel between that season and this is sure to result in hopeful grins and wishful thinking around many a water cooler and message board along the Gulf Coast.
Brees isn’t thinking big picture, just big improvements that need to be made.
“We found a way to win,” he said. “It was a good team win, but nobody is real satisfied in that locker room right now. We still have a lot of work to do. We still feel like we have a long way to go.”
It could have easily gone the other way, kind of like the Saints’ dominant-turned-sweaty-palmed 52-38 victory over the Detroit Lions here two weeks ago.
Ingram’s first fumble gave the Bears new life, and they took advantage of it. A 46-yard scramble by Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (I’ve never seen a Trubisky run that far in my life) set up a leaping 1-yard touchdown by Tarik Cohen to close the gap to five points.
Next drive, another Ingram fumble at the Bears 26, two plays after a near-miraculous 53-yard pass to Ted Ginn that Brees somehow knifed between two befuddled Chicago defenders. Fortunately for Ingram and the Saints, safety Kenny Vaccaro was on the spot to tip away a fourth-and-1 Trubisky pass with 1:51 remaining.
Handing the ball to backup rookie running back Alvin Kamara, not Ingram, the Saints nudged 7 yards to the Bears 31, where Wil Lutz converted a fluttering 49-yard field goal with 1:35 to go. Chicago needed a do-or-die touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime, but another clutch Saints rookie, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, intercepted Trubisky with 1:11 remaining and allowed New Orleans to run out the clock.
“We are a team,” Lattimore said. “If we’re down, (the offense) picks us up and if they’re down, we pick them up. It’s great that we have each other’s back like that.
“I love that.”
This city, this region has had a love affair with the Saints for five decades. Sometimes it’s been a valley of tears — do you know the Saints only just evened their Superdome record at 161-161 Sunday? But this year could be something special if the Saints keep winning in different ways: indoors, outdoors, passing, running or with defense.
To pinch a couple more words from Mr. Domino, the object is to keep “Blue Monday” at bay.