NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints would like to think they woke up the echoes in a thrilling, 41-38 victory over the defending Super Bowl making Carolina Panthers Sunday on a game-winning, 52-yard field goal by Wil Lutz with 11 seconds to play.
The Saints did reach the Super Bowl just seven years ago on a 40-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley in overtime on the same side of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a 31-28 win over Minnesota.
The dome was rocking on this day as it was on that night. It was a 12th Who Dat. This may have been a start, but the Saints entered Sunday with a 7-11 mark in their beloved dome since 2014, including 0-2 this year. The Saints that won that NFC Championship Game on January 24, 2010, were 13-4 in the dome through 2008 and ’09.
“We have had our moments,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who provided most of them. He broke Peyton Manning’s NFL record of 14 passing yards of 400 yards or more with his 15th on Sunday. He hit 34 of 49 passes for 465 yards with four touchdowns.
“It used to be that coming to the Dome for an opposing team was a tough deal,” Brees said. “We would get out on people, and we would stay out on them.”
Not so on this day. A 21-0 Saints’ lead in the second quarter became a 38-38 tie in the fourth quarter.
“I want those days to come back,” Brees said wistfully.
Brees, being surprisingly realistic, knows he and his Saints barely beat a team that is a far cry from the team that won the NFC last year. The Panthers left at 1-5. San Diego, the only other team the Saints have defeated this year (35-34 on October 2 in San Diego) is 2-4 at the moment. Only two of the three teams that beat New Orleans to start the season – Oakland and Atlanta – have winning records with the Giants at 3-3 after a win over Baltimore Sunday.
But the 2-3 Saints are a field goal away from being 3-2 as it lost to Oakland by 35-34 with Lutz just missing a 61-yard attempt at the end in the dome. Another field goal would have put it in overtime at New York, which managed to win 16-13.
“These are defining wins,” Brees said, ever hopeful again. “These are wins you can draw from as the season goes along.”
Unfortunately, the NFL is built on these games evening out over a too long 16-game schedule. This is how almost everyone stays in the hunt until almost the end. The Saints know all about this. They as much as any NFL team have patented the 7-9 to 9-7 window. Nine times beginning in 2001, they have hit in that zone, including five times since Sean Payton became coach in 2006 with 7-9s the last two seasons.
Other than a wonderful run from 2009-11 and a 2013 breakthrough, the Saints are the classic mediocre NFL team of the century.
But at the moment, they’ll take it. The Saints are at least breathing again at 2-3 as they go to Kansas City. After all, they are two field goals away from being 0-5.
“A little hoarse, excuse me,” Payton said. “It’s good to get one of those wins. It was a good win.”
A good sign was the role youth played in this one after the experiences of the previous close losses. Lutz, the hero kicker, is a rookie out of Georgia State. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who caught seven for 173 yards with an 87-yard touchdown catch for a 14-0 lead, is in his third year.
“We talk about developing young players – they’re growing up in front of us,” Payton said. “You get a little battled tested in games like we’ve had. You find out about guys. There’s a kick that Wil makes today. He’s got the moxie. I said it after the first week, and I’ll say it again, I like his makeup.”
After half a dozen kickers since Hartley alone and a dozen in less than a dozen years as Saints coach, has Payton actually found a kicker who will stick?
“We’ve had a handful of kickers,” he said, qualifying for the understatement of the year award. “He has all the traits that you’re looking for besides the physical traits like leg strength. He’s got that mental toughness. He hit that last kick good.”
With Brees still playing like he did a dozen years ago regardless of who surrounds him and more mediocre opponents on the horizon, Lutz could be the difference between 8-8 and 9-7 this season for New Orleans. And that may be all it needs to join a handful of other mediocre playoff teams.