Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
These truly aren't the Saints of old


 
 John David Mercer/US Presswire
 The Saints are finding ways to close out games and hold on for victories.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Before I say this, please understand that my right hand is raised and my left side is hooked up to a polygraph machine.
Falcons-Saints Coverage
Monday Night Football HQ
NFC South blog coverage
Video: Sean Payton on win
Video: Trent Dilfer's analysis

All right, the New Orleans Saints really, really, really are a different football team than last year, the year before and at any point in their history.

Yeah, I know I’ve been writing for seven weeks now about how different the Saints are now that they have a real defense. And how great the offense is with Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey and the presence of an actual running game. And how Sean Payton is a much better coach than he was even a year ago.

But the truth is, there was a small part of me that totally didn’t believe it. There was a part of me that kept waiting for the same old Saints to emerge. I mean this is a franchise that’s had far more gory years than glory years. This is a city that just celebrated Voo-Doo Fest over the weekend.

Surely, the voo-doo or the karma or whatever you want to call it was bound to surface on the "Monday Night Football" stage. Surely, the Saints would find a way to lose to the Atlanta Falcons at a time when the entire region was starting to talk about how this team could go undefeated.

But here’s where the same old story has a new twist. Everything that could go wrong pretty much did -- and the Saints still won.

“I’m just glad we survived tonight,’’ offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said.

The Saints defeated the Falcons 35-27. They ran their record to 7-0 and put themselves way ahead of the Falcons (4-3) in the NFC South standings. But the Saints did far more than that.

“It wasn’t the prettiest win,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “But we did what we needed when we needed to get a win and that’s saying a lot.’’

That’s saying a real lot. I’ll guarantee you that last year’s Saints never would have won this game. Last year’s Saints would have handed off a victory.

Remember? That’s exactly what the Saints did in a Monday night home game against Minnesota last year. They wasted two late punt returns for touchdowns by Reggie Bush and lost to the Vikings. There are dozens of classic examples through the years, but you don’t need to hear the litany right now because it doesn’t apply.

This version of the Saints kept having disaster thrown in its face, yet still was able to prevail. Let’s run through the list of near disasters the new-wave Saints avoided.

Let’s start with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-24. The Falcons were driving with a chance to take a lead in a game the Saints should have wrapped up right after halftime. This was when Matt Ryan threw for Tony Gonzalez near the end zone. This was when cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in and did what no past Saint ever could seem to do.

Porter intercepted the ball and the Saints marched right down the field to take a 35-24 lead.

Let’s jump now to the 1:23 mark of the fourth quarter. That’s when the Saints were trying to run the clock out on that lead and they gave the ball to Mike Bell, their most sure-handed running back. He promptly fumbled and ghosts of past disasters began dancing in the rafters of the Superdome.

The Falcons tacked on a field goal and all their hopes came down to recovering an onside kick and scoring a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The Falcons got the recovery and the perfect disaster was setting up as Ryan dropped back with 11 seconds left and threw toward the end zone. Surely, the ball would end up in the hands of an Atlanta receiver and a two-point conversion was sure to follow.

Neither thing happened. Instead, Darren Sharper, the 33-year-old safety who is playing like he’s 23, intercepted and the game was basically over.

“It wasn’t perfect,’’ Payton said of the victory. “It wasn’t clean.’’

No, it wasn’t. There were mistakes. But no football team is ever perfect, but right now the undefeated Saints are about as close to that as you’ll find. They not only defeated their past Monday night, they also defeated their present and their future.
Ryan vs. Saints Pressure
The Saints defense brought pressure on 22 of Ryan’s 42 pass attempts and Ryan struggled to handle it. Although Ryan averaged 7.8 yards per attempt against added pressure, he also threw two interceptions.
Category Extra Standard
Comp-Att 11-22 8-17
Yard att 7.8 5.5
Sacks 2 1
TD-INT 1-2 0-1
* 3 spikes not included

The Falcons are good and they’re going to remain the main division challenge to the Saints for the forseeable future. The Falcons didn’t have a bad game against the Saints like they did in Week 7 at Dallas. In fact, I think the Falcons played about as well as they’re capable of playing. They got running back Michael Turner really going for only the second time this season and their defense actually got some pressure on Brees and made some good things happen.

That should have been enough against the Saints of old. It wasn’t enough this time and that’s because the Saints truly -- and I’m saying it once and for all -- are a different team than they’ve ever been.

They can finish games now.

“Well, it wasn’t the way we want to finish, but we got a win,’’ Stinchcomb said. “There are plenty of things to work on and it’s going to be a tough week of work.’’

Yes, the Saints have a few things to work on. But the difference is they’re working on perfecting ways to win games, instead of finding ways to lose them.