Monday, September 20, 2010

Week Two: The Ugliest Win

More Saints have been martyred in Candlestick Park than in the Roman Coliseum. Yet on a night when the defending World Champion New Orleans team played before the eyes of the very men (Montana, Lott, Craig, Young and Jerry Rice- whose jersey was retired that evening) who manhandled the Saints in their old NFC West days, it was the San Francisco Forty-Niners who agonizingly gave away a game that they should have won.

It was as if the cleat was on the other foot.

Though Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a decent night, going 28-38 for 254 yards with two touchdowns, the long ball was missing tonight with wide receiver Marques Colston snagging the Black and Gold's longest reception at 30 yards.

Was it the wind? Was it the pressure? Brees's O-Line didn't look like award winners, allowing the signal caller to get sacked twice.

The Saints defense gave up a lot of ground to both running back Frank Gore, who averaged over 5 yards per run and ended the day with 112 rushing yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Alex Smith, who scrambled for 28 yards on 4 carries, The nugget of good news was that the Saints defense didn't give up the dreaded big run from last season, with Gore's longest rush being 20 yards, though the running back was getting it done on a smaller scale.

The Saints front seven didn't do a good job putting pressure on the Niners quarterback. Smith wasn't sacked once in the game and found time to get the ball to his receivers. The defense allowed Smith to march his team from their own 18 yard line to the Saints' end zone in eight plays in less than a minute. Perhaps too efficiently, though that was hardly the plan by the Saints defense.

When considering the numerous mistakes committed by the Niners throughout the game, the turbo-charged Saints offense should have won the game handily. Instead it was nail-biter that went down to the final play.

Running back Pierre Thomas didn't have a good day, running 18 times for 46 yards and no scores. His fellow running back Reggie Bush had a better day statistically but a far worse day overall, leaving the game with a knee injury after trying to recover a botched punt catch.

Saints kicker Garrett Hartley may be the only Saints player satisfied with his effort, going 3-3 on field goals, even if he had some accidental help on the game winner. Hartley, who missed all of his field goal attempts against the Minnesota Vikings season kickoff, had to be relieved to have come out on top and once again been the hero.

Overall the Saints didn't play like a Super Bowl winner. They didn't execute offensively while the defense struggled to force their opponents to punt the ball (three times compared to the Saints punting six).

The Saints did a remarkable job taking away the football, though one could argue that some of those turnovers could be better described as give-aways. Where the Saints came up short was doing something with those "gifts".

In a lot of ways this game resembled last seasons' road contests against the Washington Redskins and Saint Louis Rams, where the better team escaped with a win at the very end. With a short week, the Black and Gold face a big challenge as they host divisional rival Atlanta Falcons, who convincingly won their home game against the Arizona Cardinals 41-7.

I am going to say it now and repeat it Friday: you can forget Dallas, Sunday's showdown with the Falcons is now the most important regular game of the season for the Saints.

There was some good from the game. The Saints pulled in a win in a very hostile environment going 2-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. And I should add the Saints succeeded against a very motivated team looking to avenge their embarassment from last week's game against the Seattle Seahawks and play well before the team's legends.

The Mardi Gras team finally got to rain on Jerry Rice's parade in front of their tormentors from the 80s and 90s. For pre-Haslett-era Who Dats, this win was special.

Secondly, despite being stifled on both sides of the ball, the Saints didn't get flustered and didn't make the mistakes the Niners committed. Brees wasn't picked off once, though he had a close call, and the only time a member of the Black and Gold coughed up the ball, he recovered it.

The Saints kept their cool, were patient and found ways to win- which is precisely what Montana and Young did during those halcyon quarters when it appeared that the Saints were en route to defeating the Niners yet only to finish on the short end of things.

Perhaps the game was an exorcism for the Saints, a violent and intense experience yet finally overcoming the demons of the past (see the aforementioned list of Niner Pro-Bowlers).

Though the win was ugly, the Saints remain first in the division, tied with Tampa Bay (!), which hasn't faced the caliber of opponents the Saints have.

Not to be as effusive as the ESPN radio broadcasters in their post-game assessment of the Forty-Niners, but the team did show resilience in the midst of sloppy play and began to live up to the hype about winning their division this year, even though they start the young sesaon 0-2.

When considering the overall weakness of the division, the Niners have plenty of time to rebound...which makes this win that much more important to the Saints if San Francisco ends up winning the NFC West.

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