Marched over by victors
NEW ORLEANS - So we thought the Patriots were going to come in here and beat these guys?
Bill Belichick wasn’t kidding. The Saints are good. The offense is for real, the defense is for real, and the Superdome is most definitely for real. If this was supposed to be the big test, the obvious conclusion is that the New Orleans Saints are going to get an A, maybe even an A-plus for their regular-season work. With this 38-17 victory over a team many thought would at least give them a hard time, the Saints moved to 11-0, and now everybody can start thinking about the Dallas game here Dec. 19 as a possible game of interest because there doesn’t appear to be anything else on their remaining schedule of any consequence.
“Obviously, a big win for us,’’ said Saints coach Sean Payton. “That’s a real good team we played. I think our players know that. We have a lot of respect for what they have accomplished.’’
That’s a very nice and diplomatic way of responding to a thorough whuppin’.
It would be difficult to overstate what’s going on down here with the New Orleans fans and their current adoration of this football team. You easily could think you had landed in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Austin, and not an NFL town. A big sporting event - and this was considered the biggest regular-season game in Saints history - easily can get swallowed up in a major city. When it’s all said and done, not everyone is a sports fan.
But it was impossible to escape the Saints, and this game, the last few days. Every other person was wearing Saints garb, and that includes just about every croupier at Harrah’s Casino, be it male, female, Caucasian, African-American, old, or young.
This was, by all accounts, the toughest ticket in Saints history. People saw this game as the one that would validate all the others. It was a tremendous sign of respect for a 7-3 opponent with a shaky defense, but such is the lingering Patriots mystique throughout the National Football League.
The Saints, meanwhile, have had a tortured history, never really coming close to a Super Bowl. Now, pretty much without warning, they have come up with a dynamic team that has a chance to break records, which, in the end, isn’t really important, and win a championship, which is. It’s just their luck there is another monster team loose in the conference, and it is getting harder and harder for neutrals not to be rooting for an epic confrontation in the Jan. 24 NFC Championship game between the Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. The two conceivably could enter that affair with a combined regular- and postseason record of 33-1. That one might earn a ratings point or two.
When it was over last night, we had to wonder what all the pregame fuss was about. The Patriots presented no more of a problem for the Saints than any of the previous 10 victims. Drew Brees (18 of 23, 373 yards, 5 TDs, and a perfect passer rating of 158.3) and his receivers embarrassed the Patriots secondary, and Tom Brady (21 of 36, 237 yards, no TDs, two picks, and a QB rating of 55.0) was unable to keep pace.
Brees is clearly playing as well as any quarterback in the league, and, yes, that includes Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, or anyone else you can name.
“It was a great job by him,’’ acknowledged Payton. “Magnificent.’’
Let the record show that, after holding the Saints to a 30-yard John Carney field goal on the game’s first possession, the Patriots responded with a crisp and efficient 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive that consumed 7:40 on the clock and which featured great pass/run balance (seven of each). And things looked even brighter when the New England defense forced Brees & Co. into a three-and-out and Wes Welker returned a Thomas Morstead punt 41 yards to the New Orleans 46. It was easy to envision the Patriots soon being ahead, 14-3, and on their way to a satisfying victory.
But on first down, an unpressured Brady, while looking for Randy Moss, hung one out there for Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie, who said “Thank you very much’’ for that precious gift.
Things never would be the same again.
Football statistics can lie as much as any numbers in sport, and this was the case last night. At the end of the third quarter, the Patriots had a substantial statistical edge in such categories as first downs and time of possession. But the score was 31-17, home team, and it was easy to understand why when you consider that the Saints had scoring drives of 5 plays, 76 yards; 1 play, 75 yards; and 3 plays, 74 yards. When a team is assaulting your defense like that, things like first downs and possession become irrelevant.
It’s always risky to extrapolate sports success to the sociology world, but it is a fair statement to say that the Saints have been the best thing to happen to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit. This is a football culture, and, no, the Saints aren’t going to bring back jobs or the staggering amount of people who were forced out of town after the catastrophic flood and have never come back, but this team is now Topic A for those who have survived and right now New Orleans is a very upbeat place.
If any city deserves this team, it’s New Orleans, all right.