For at least one night, the New Orleans Saints turned back the clock to their glory years.
Thursday’s 31-21 victory over the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons included so many of the familiar Saints ingredients of the last decade. Drew Brees was precise while throwing for 312 yards. The defense forced three turnovers. The starting tight end dominated, and the game was even kickstarted by a punt block touchdown that was awfully reminiscent of that blocked punt in 2006.
The Falcons, now 5-1, don’t have to worry about that ridiculous 16-0 talk just because they have an easy schedule. Atlanta has four fourth-quarter comebacks for a reason. They are a high-energy team with flaws and aren’t built to blow teams out.
The victory won’t end consternation about Saints coach Sean Payton’s future, but it does give the Saints‘ season some life at 2-4. It should forever be remembered as The Ben Watson Game, as the 12-year veteran did his best Jimmy Graham impression with 10 catches and 127 yards and a touchdown. It was cool to watch one of the league’s longtime good guys put up a random career game in his 12th season.
“He’s one of the greatest teammates you could ever ask for,” Drew Brees said of Watson to CBS after the game. “He motivates me and inspires me every day.”
Watson was on the receiving end of the key decision of the game. Payton showed some of his old guts by choosing not to kick on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line in the third quarter. The Saints were up 10 points at the time and most coaches would have been happy to pad that lead. Payton wanted to knock his biggest rival on the mat. Brees delivered a pop pass to a wide open Watson, and the game was effectively over.
Embattled Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been promising a turnaround, and the Falcons did their best to help prove him right. Matt Ryan fumbled a fourth-down snap, killing one drive. Another promising drive ended with a fumble from center James Stone on a shotgun snap. The Falcons lost two other fumbles on the night, and had some poorly-timed penalties. They moved the ball at will in the first half with 265 yards, yet had only seven points to show for it.
The Saints still deserve all the credit for dominating the game on both sides of the ball in the second half. Just four days after an embarrassing beatdown in Philadelphia, they put together their best game of the season. They limited the damage from Julio Jones. Payton made the gutsy calls and Cameron Jordan wreaked havoc in the backfield.
It was like old times for one night in New Orleans. Now they just need to bottle this formula and repeat it eight more times.