The game went “down to the wire”… as they say. That phrase is lifted from horse racing but has become sort of an all-purpose sports locution that can be hauled out on occasions like the one Sunday night when the New Orleans Saints held on to defeat the Carolina Panthers in the best game of the first round of the NFL playoffs.
It was a game to remind you of why you started following professional football in the first place. And it was good to see the Saints back in the playoffs. The team was good for the morale of New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and its fans have more fun than those from any other city and, perhaps, from all the NFL cities combined. There are fans at every Saints home game who look like they never changed out of their Mardi Gras threads. Fans of other teams go to the games to have fun. Saints fans go to party. There is a distinction but you have to know New Orleans to understand it.
They are loyal, these Saints fans. They endured a long, long run of losing seasons before they became competitive and in 2009, reached the Super Bowl, at last. By that time they had the two essential ingredients for success in the NFL: a quality coach and a great quarterback. The coach was (and is) Sean Payton who has a streak of the gambler in him. In that Super Bowl, his team was playing the Indianapolis Colts who had one of the game’s great quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, whose father, Archie, had, by-the-way, played quarterback for the Saints in the team’s formative years. Archie was great and Saints fan loved him. But the team was woeful.
Anyway… on February 7, 2010, it was the Saints up against the Colts and Archie’s boy in the Super Bowl. The Saints were the underdogs. At the half, they were behind 10-6. They would be kicking off to the Colts and thereby giving the ball to Payton Manning after he’d had the leisure of the lengthy Super Bowl halftime to scheme and study.
Trying to out-scheme Peyton Manning is usually a losing proposition and 17-6 is no place to be on your first possession of the second half…
So the Saints surprised everyone with an onside kick. Which they recovered.
If they hadn’t recovered that kick it would have amounted to a gift of thirty yards, or more, to the Colts and people in New Orleans might still be sticking pins in Sean Payton voodoo dolls. He would have been immortalized on the “worst football coaching decisions of all time” list along with… oh, Pete Carroll, who had his quarterback throw on second and goal against the New England Patriots in another, more recent, Super Bowl.
All football fans know how that one turned out.
But the Saints recovered that onside kick and went on to win the game. So as it turned out, Payton’s gamble was inspired. Five years after Katrina, the Saints were world champions. There is a lot of disagreeable sentimentality that attaches to sports. A lot of cant and a lot of B.S. But after Katrina, the Saints did, undeniably, provide a lift for a city that badly needed one. The Super Bowl victory seemed somehow necessary and fitting. The team had earned it and the city deserved it.
And that reckless onside kick was crucial to the thing.
Fans always want their team to go for it. Payton had gone for it, for damned sure.
The Saints have had their woes since that Super Bowl. But they still have their quarterback from that season when they beat a team whose quarterback was Brett Favre for the right to play in the Super Bowl against a team whose quarterback was Peyton Manning. Favre and Manning are both retired now. At 39, Drew Brees is still the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints and still has his stuff. He is one of the game’s gentlemen and good guys.
Against the Panthers, Brees looked as sharp as he ever has. Early in the game, he connected on a long pass that hit his receiver perfectly in stride. The play covered some eighty yards for a touchdown. It was a bold call by Payton and perfect execution by Brees. Like old times.
But the game was not over and, in fact, the Carolina Panthers still had a shot late in the fourth quarter. They were down by five and had the Saints in fourth and two with enough time to drive the field, score, and win the game after the Saints punted. Which they would, of course, do. In the NFL, coaches always punt on fourth and two and then count on the defense to hold. If it doesn’t … well, coach can say he made the right call, the defense just didn’t do its part.
The Saints ran a play. Fans always want you to go for it and Payton went for it.
But this time the play didn’t work. Brees couldn’t find an open man. He threw a desperation pass that was unwisely intercepted by one of the Panthers who was tackled almost immediately. If he had merely batted the ball to the ground, his team would have taken over some thirty yards closer to the Saints goal. Still… Payton had gone for it. Had gambled and lost.
Now it was up to his defense to hold on.
Which seemed unlikely when the Panthers took the ball to the Saints’ twenty and had plenty of time to get the thing done. But the Saints rushed Cam Newton hard enough on one play that he was called for intentional grounding and then sacked him on the following play, a fourth and long, to seal the win.
This time Payton lost his gamble but the Saints still won the game.
Nice to have them back.
Now… let’s hit the Quarter and party.