Commentary

Perfectly stunning Saints salvage job

New Orleans played an imperfect game but departed Miami an improbable 6-0

Originally Published: October 25, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- The New Orleans Saints should be 5-1 now.

They should be back at their team headquarters in Metairie, La., munching on antidepressants, wondering how the NFL's highest-rated quarterback and highest-scoring offense could lay a carton of eggs like the one they deposited Sunday at Land Shark Stadium.

Drew Brees? You mean the guy who entered the game against the Miami Dolphins as the league's No. 1 passer? Sorry, never saw him in the first half.

Instead, I saw a stiff who threw two interceptions, was sacked three times and looked like he couldn't win a backup QB job behind JaMarcus Russell. In fact, the whole Saints offense should have been doused with Lysol after the first two quarters.

"Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong," Brees said. "The turnovers. Whatever, the batted balls. The penalties. All those things that just gave us no chance."

And then …

Brees became Brees again.

Saints safety Darren Sharper, who has been in this league seemingly as long as the NFL logo, returned another interception for a touchdown.

Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey, nearly invisible in the first half, stiff-armed the Dolphins' defensive backs into Biscayne Bay.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Jeffrey M. BoanDrew Brees (9) didn't need to rub Heath Evans' head for luck.

And the Dolphins (2-4) once again found a way to dominate an opponent for large stretches of a game and lose. Not just lose, but lose spectacularly. They were last seen curled into a ball, mumbling something about their mommy.

Yes, the Saints (6-0) are somehow still undefeated, thanks to a 46-34 victory that defies logic. How can you play that poorly and yet win that big?

How can you trail 24-3, with five seconds left in the first half and then get a Hail Mary timeout by Miami coach Tony Sparano that saves the day? How can you outscore the Dolphins 22-0 in the fourth quarter and 36-10 in the second half?

"I will say that there was really no doubt on our sideline that we would come back and win this game," said Brees, whose team hadn't trailed all season. "Just because that's all we talked about: finishing football games. … Honest to God, we knew it was going to happen, and sure enough, it did."

No doubt? The Saints had five penalties in the first half. They were 2-of-9 on third downs. Brees had thrown a pair of interceptions.

Their rushing game was still on the team bus (23 yards).

"Obviously the first half was something to be forgotten," Brees said.

All of it except the final five seconds. With the Saints on the Miami 6-inch line, New Orleans coach Sean Payton sent his field goal unit into the game. Better to get three points than risk getting nothing.

But then Sparano chose to call a timeout because, he said later, he wanted to make sure the Dolphins had the right personnel on the field. It was a game-changing decision, because Brees used the time to lobby Payton for a quarterback sneak play.

"I'll get the touchdown," Brees told Payton.

Payton waved in the offense. Brees told his offensive line, "Get down, get low and I'll score."

And he did, turning what should have been an 18-point Miami lead into a 14-point lead.

"Imagine the emotional lift going into the locker room if we could get a touchdown," Brees said.

"There's just moments in the game you feel it as a head coach, or as a quarterback where, 'We need an emotional lift right now. We need a momentum swing. We need to make a play.'"

If Sparano doesn't call the timeout, then Brees can't talk Payton out of the field goal try. And without a timeout, the officials would have started the game clock. Brees and the Saints' offense almost certainly wouldn't have been able to reach the line of scrimmage and spike the ball in time.

"They ended up going forward and we didn't make the play," Sparano said.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Shockey
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireFormer University of Miami star Jeremy Shockey (88) had a breakout game as a Saint against Gibril Wilson's Dolphins.

That's one way of putting it. The other way would be that Sparano's decision -- and Brees' QB sneak -- flipped the emotion from the Dolphins to the Saints.

The Saints are now 6-0. They're the only undefeated team in the NFC and one of three unbeaten teams in the league. If the season ended today, a reporter reminded Payton, they'd be the conference's No. 1 playoff seed.

"Well, it's not the BCS," Payton said. "In the BCS you've got to pay attention to the No. 1, the 2, the 3, the 4. That means nothing. After six weeks, we've got a lot of football left. The Alabamas, the LSUs, and the Ohio States, and all those people, Iowa, that means something for them. That doesn't mean anything for us."

That's not true. Said Saints center Jonathan Goodwin: "I think this is the first time I've been 6-0 in anything."

There were 14 scores in this game, eight of them by the Saints. Brees finished with 298 yards, one TD pass, twoTD runs, but also three interceptions and five sacks.

But the Saints were bailed out by Sparano's timeout, by Brees' ability to change Payton's mind, by two pick-sixes (one by Sharper -- his third of the season -- and one by cornerback Tracy Porter), by Shockey's 105 receiving yards (and about a 15-yard stiff-arm of Miami free safety Gibril Wilson during one of those catch-and-runs), by backup running back Mike Bell's 80 yards and by a Dolphins team that completely lost its mojo in the second half.

"Without a doubt, it's the best win we've had," said Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

It's the best because it was so unexpected -- perhaps not to Brees, but to the Dolphins and just about anybody else who was watching this game during the first half. Check that: anybody who was watching this thriller late in the third quarter, when Ricky Williams' third TD run of the day put Miami up 34-24.

"It's not always going to be perfect," said Saints kickoff return man Courtney Roby.

And yet here are the Saints. They played an imperfect game, but left with a perfect record.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter