BALTIMORE — Just a month ago, the flamboyant and ever-charging New Orleans Saints finally looked spent and tired.
They had lost their season-opening game at home despite scoring 40 points. The next week, they narrowly escaped defeat in Cleveland only because the Browns kicker missed an extra point and a field goal in the game’s final two minutes.
It felt like last season’s devastating playoff loss on a last-second play in Minnesota was still haunting the Saints.
And why not? Who forgets defeat on a miracle 61-yard touchdown, a stunning result aided by a mystifying non-tackle by a Saints safety?
But by now, we should know that this Saints team – an unrelenting combination of Brees’s pluck and Coach Sean Payton’s daring – is hard to predict. Or keep down.
On Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, the Saints were down by 10 points on the road in the second half to the N.F.L.’s top-ranked defense. Oh, and at that point, the snarling Ravens hadn’t given up a touchdown in the second half in any game this season.
Brees, playing in his 255th N.F.L. game, didn’t flinch. Neither did Payton, who put his grit on display during the game’s first possession series when he went for it on fourth down an unfathomable four times.
And so, the Saints scored 17 fourth-quarter points against the Ravens, who came into the game yielding only 12.8 points per game, to win, 24-23.
Yes, the Saints got an incredible stroke of good luck when Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who had converted 222 previous extra point tries in his career, missed a game-tying extra point attempt after his teammates scored a touchdown with 28 seconds remaining in the game.
“Hey, the more ways you can find a way to win – any way and every way – that’s how you keep a good season going,” said a smiling Brees afterward.
And make no mistake about it, it’s now apparent that the 5-1 Saints have a very good season going. Sunday’s victory proved that.
It was a featured game of the week, showcasing the N.F.L.’s best offense statistically (averaging 34 points a game) against the league’s stingiest defense.
With a loud, raucous crowd behind them, and a rejuvenated, composed Joe Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens (4-3) looked comfortably in control with a 17-7 lead heading into the final quarter. But the Saints don’t seem to find any lead insurmountable.
As running back Mark Ingram said: “Look, how many times has Drew Brees brought the Saints back? Seriously, I don’t care what anybody says, he’s the best there’s ever been – especially at that. You see the look in his eyes in the huddle late in games. There’s no worry.”
Brees, in turn, credits some of that resolve to Payton. Case in point was the game’s opening drive when the Saints held the ball for 20 consecutive plays and moved the ball 71 yards.
New Orleans successfully attempted a fake punt on its first fourth down of the drive. Four plays later, a quarterback sneak by Brees picked up a first down on a fourth-and-one. Seven plays after that, Ingram ran for five yards on a fourth-and-2.
When the Saints faced another fourth-and-one at the Ravens 4-yard line – they had possessed the football for almost 10 minutes – they went for it again. A pitch to running back Alvin Karama was poorly executed – a swarming Baltimore defense played a part too – and the drive stalled.
No matter. The message was sent by the Saints.
“Even if we didn’t get any points, we set the tone,” said Brees. “It was a mind-set, and our team understood it.”
Said wide receiver Michael Thomas: “I love the confidence it shows when we go for it on fourth down. It’s even better when we do it over and over.”
Payton said it was part of the game plan conceived last week in preparation for the Ravens.
“We didn’t expect it to be a high-scoring game,” he said even though his team has already been in plenty of them. “So there’s a plan, but it’s not one taken with reckless abandon. It’s done with confidence and knowing that we want to control the football for as long as we can.”
It also appeared to imbue his charges with a steeling determination late in the game. By the fourth quarter, New Orleans had worn down the formidable Ravens defense with punishing runs by Ingram and Kamara. One of the things that should make the Saints a tough opponent for anyone going forward is that they are balanced offensively.
Sunday, 39 of their 70 plays were rushes. And so it was that a 2-yard touchdown run by Kamara cut the Baltimore lead to 17-14. A Brees touchdown pass, the 501st of his career, gave the Saints the lead and another efficient drive that led to a field goal increased the Saints’ edge to 24-17.
Flacco led the Ravens back. Tucker’s miss shocked a celebrating home crowd awaiting overtime.
The Saints bounced and jumped off the field.
“Games like these are huge for building a team identity,” Brees said. “When you get down in a game on another day, no matter the situation, you feel like you’ve been there before and can come back. You feel battle tested.
“You feel great.”
So much for the hangover from last season’s crushing playoff loss. The buoyant Saints are riding high again. One more step remains in putting away the sour taste of last January. The Saints play the Vikings in Minnesota this coming weekend.