Saints surprise fans with wins

By RICK CLEVELAND,

New Orleans Saints fans – and surely there are tens of thousands in Mississippi – always talk about “being in that number.”

But how many were really in that number who believed the Saints would be 3-1 at this point – without Drew Brees for the last two games?

Not this observer. The Saints were 1-1 after a narrow victory over the Houston Texans and a double loss to the Rams in Los Angeles. Double loss? Yes, they lost the game and they lost future first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer Drew Brees to a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand.

What's more, the Saints faced the harsh task of playing the undefeated and high-flying Seattle Seahawks on the road before coming home to the dome to play the equally undefeated and largely unchallenged Dallas Cowboys. They would do so with Teddy Bridgewater, whose last meaningful NFL start had been in 2015 for the Minnesota Vikings.

Honestly, I thought they would 1-3. The Seahawks are a fantastic team and, Seattle's noise factory is one of the most difficult places to play in the NFL. Final score: Saints 33, Seahawks 27. Dallas was 3-0 and had won those victories by an average of three touchdowns each. The Saints couldn't beat the Cowboys last year with Drew Brees. So, the Saints, without benefit of a touchdown, defeated the Cowboys 12-10 Sunday night in an old-timey defensive slugfest.

The original prognosis for Brees was that he would miss at-the-least six games. I figured the Saints needed somehow to find a way to win three of those to then make a playoffs run once he returned.

They've already got two. They found a way – twice.

The Saints are 3-1 primarily because of defense, special teams and because, even without Brees, they still have two of the NFL's best offensive weapons in running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas. Now then, you put all that together with the return of Drew Brees in November – and you might really have something special.

The Saints defense is already that. The return of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins for a few snaps against the Cowboys made them that much more special. In his first three games, Cowboys running star Ezekiel Elliot had run for just under 100 yards per game and about five yards per carry. The Saints stoned him, allowing just 35 yards and 1.9 per carry. Linebacker Demario Davis was seemingly everywhere with nine tackles – this after introducing himself to NBC's Sunday night audience as being from “Brandon High School.”

Saints special teams are special, too. In the absence of Brees, Thomas Morstead is showing out. The Saints will face a lot more fourth downs without Brees. But there are worse fates than sending Morstead out there to pin the other team back deep in their territory with seemingly every punt. Placekicker Wil Lutz is as close as you get to automatic. Remember, the Saints need Lutz's last gasp 58-yard field goal to beat the Texans.

Overall, he is now 10 of 11 and was a perfect four of four against Dallas. And I mean perfect. His kicks Sunday night would have been good if the uprights were eight feet apart instead of 18 feet, 6 inches.

What's more, return specialist Deonte Harris has become a human highlights reel. His punt return for a touchdown against the Seahawks was crucial to victory. At times, he makes the other 21 players on the field appear to be running in slow motion. He is that quick, that fast.

In recent years, Brees has spoiled Saints fans. With his accuracy and resourcefulness, there's always the feeling the black and gold can just outscore the other team. Now, the Brees-less Saints remind us that football is a three-phase game, and if you win two of the three, you usually win the game. You can win with defense and special teams if you just don't beat yourself on offense.

Bridgewater has protected the ball well. He has done what the Saints have asked him to do. So let's see how long all this lasts.

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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