Saints Save Unbeaten Record in Overtime
The uninspiring Washington Redskins represented a classic NFL trap game for the New Orleans Saints - short week after a big win, road game, inferior opponent.
Mix in an injury-racked secondary with chilly conditions for a dome team, and it added up to potential disaster Sunday for a team trying to extend its momentum and unbeaten record.
And it nearly was.
The Saints (12-0) reiterated why they might be the league's most dangerous team by twice overcoming 10-point deficits to earn a 33-30 overtime victory on Garrett Hart ley's 18-yard field goal.
The boys from the French Quarter own the fourth quarter in the NFL this season, outscoring opponents 122-27 in that period.
It appears New Orleans might be one of those teams with providence lurking on its sideline. Might it be that destiny wears a fleur-de-lis this season?
How else to explain league MVP candidate Drew Brees winging a second-quarter interception that instantly - almost magically - was transformed into a tying touchdown when Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem stripped a Redskins defender and sprinted 44 yards for a touchdown?
"I definitely believe in destiny, and I believe in karma and what goes around comes around," Brees said after passing for 419 yards and touchdowns of 53 and 40 yards. "We have been on the other side of this deal probably too many times. Maybe it's our time that we start catching some of the breaks and start being the team that wins them like this in the end."
The Saints also ignored the weather Sunday, winning in sub-40-degree temperatures for the first time since 1995 to clinch the franchise's fourth division crown, the NFC South, in its star-crossed 43-year history. It marks the third time the Saints have won as many as a dozen games during the regular season.
"Twelve-and-zero means a lot to us," Meachem said. "It's bigger than just the team. All of the fans, that's what it means. They've been through Hurricane Katrina and Gustav and a lot of bad things."
For much of the game, New Orleans struggled against a 3-9 team only six days after humbling the once-mighty New England Patriots 38-17.
The Saints and Indianapolis Colts (12-0) are trying to become the second team in NFL history to rack up a 16-0 regular-season slate. The Patriots did it two years ago.
And New Orleans could still break New England's league record for points scored in a season (589 in 2007). The Saints need to average 37-plus points a game against their remaining opponents: Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers.
Early on against Washington, it appeared as if the Saints had a collective hangover of sorts from the New England game. Their pass defense, missing injured Randall Gay, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, struggled. New Orleans also was without injured linebackers Scott Fujita and Marvin Mitchell.
Offensively, the Saints couldn't run the ball effectively, one of their staples. Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas combined for 52 rushing yards.
New Orleans compounded those issues with undisciplined mistakes, including untimely penalties (seven for 102 yards).
But New Orleans persevered, retaining its cool as Brees blew down the doors of another NFL pass defense.
Less than a week after his finest game as a pro, in which he earned a perfect passer rating and threw five touchdown passes, Brees rescued his floundering team. His 53-yard floater to a wide-open Meachem, who faked the Redskins with a double move, highlighted an 80-yard, 33-second drive with no timeouts and 1:19 left in regulation.
"Drew Brees is a great quarterback," said Redskins counterpart Jason Campbell, who completed 30 of 42 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
Brees was 35-for-49 and had a passer rating of 102.3. Washington had not permitted a quarterback to throw for more than 260 yards this season, though many teams prefer to run on the Redskins instead.
Brees has been named NFC offensive player of the week three times this season, and a fourth award might be on the way.
"There is confidence in this quarterback," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "You've got a long ways to go from the 20, but you have the feeling that - in the clutch, in the critical moments - he is something."
In overtime, Washington won the coin flip, but fullback Mike Sellers lost a fumble at the Redskins 37. New Orleans seized the initiative and drove deep into Redskins territory. This is how confident the Saints play: Payton initially eschewed a short field goal attempt before eventually sending in Hartley, who had missed a 58-yarder on the last play of regulation.
The backup kicker, replacing veteran John Carney, drilled the game-winner. Hartley was activated because Payton had not been satisfied with Carney's recent production.
"He's cool, calm and collected," Payton said of Hartley. "I was proud of him, and I was proud of the way John handled (being benched)."
The team's mantra in 2009: Finish strong. They wear T-shirts with the phrase. Fortunately for the Saints, they were playing a team that does not know how to close out games. For the third consecutive week, the Redskins, who committed four turnovers, lost a fourth-quarter lead.
Interception, strip and TD
Payton's go-for-the-jugular attitude is mimicked by ultra-aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a former Redskins assistant. The Saints are tops in the NFL in take aways with 36.
On offense, the Saints never believe a game is beyond reach. Meachem was Brees' favorite target Sunday, snagging eight balls for 142 yards. But it was the receiver's defensive move that might have saved the Saints' afternoon.
Washington took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, threatening to spoil New Orleans' perfect season. But near the end of the first half, the Redskins stumbled during a critical juncture when they could have trotted to the locker room with a 17-10 lead.
On third-and-26 from the Washington 44, Brees, under a heavy rush, lofted the ball down the middle toward tight end Jeremy Shockey. Redskins safety Kareem Moore intercepted the floater.
As Moore began running toward the sideline, he was unexpectedly greeted with trouble. Meachem, a third-year player from Tennessee, instantly turned defender.
He stripped the ball from Moore, bobbled it for an instant, then scooted untouched down the sideline for an improbable 44-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining in the half, knotting the score.
The play was in doubt for several minutes, but officials reviewed it and upheld the call.
"That," Brees said, "was unbelievable."
The Saints were fortunate on more than one occasion, which often happens with teams stamped for greatness.
With Washington clinging to a 30-23 fourth-quarter lead, Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal attempt with 1:52 remaining.
The Saints were far from perfect, giving hope to fans in Minnesota, Dallas and Philadelphia that crowning the conference kingpin is not a fait accompli.
The usually offensively challenged Redskins racked up numbers like never before under embattled second-year coach Jim Zorn.
It was the first time since December 2007 that Washington had scored at least 30 points.
Campbell called it "the strangest game I have been a part of."
For the Saints, that just might mean fate wears black and gold, at least in the NFC.