If the New Orleans Saints emerge this season from the rubble of a 1-3 start, and proceed to ascend to some of the heights they envisioned they believed attainable this season, then Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome could be the day that they refer to as the turning point.
New Orleans' 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn't as clean, dominating or thorough as the Saints wanted. But in the long run, having to dig, claw and grit out a comeback could prove to be a better tonic for New Orleans (2-3), which remained a game behind Carolina (3-2) for the NFC South Division lead as the Saints enter their bye week.
"Listen, it's all in front of us," Drew Brees said. "Our division right now is so close, in regards to the records. So it's all ahead of us, we realize that. Learn from what's happened this season, learn from this game.
"I think this was a big confidence-builder. This was a game that, by winning, I think could be a defining moment when we look back on the season, when it's all said and done. So let's hope that it is in a positive way."
The game ebbed and flowed until the Saints grabbed it by the shoulder pads and wrestled away control over the final 13:28 of regulation and in overtime. During that time, New Orleans erased a 31-20 deficit in regulation and never allowed the Buccaneers (1-4) a possession in the extra period, driving 80 yards in 12 plays for the winning touchdown, courtesy of Khiry Robinson's 18-yard run with 9:24 left.
The drive, kept alive by a crucial penalty by Tampa Bay – an illegal use of the hands by cornerback Johnthan Banks on third-and-10 from the Saints' 41-yard line, which gave New Orleans a first down – helped the Saints even their record in overtime games this season. And for the first time, they won when they lost the turnover battle, finishing minus-2 in that category.
"Needless to say, it was good to get the win in overtime and be able to finish the game on a drive like that, where we don't give them the ball," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought defensively, we played with a lot of emotion and did a good job.
"At the end of the half, the turnover hurt us offensively and kind of got them back in it, but we fought back in the second half. Fortunately, we were able to get a few possessions together and close the gap to tie it and then win it in overtime.
"We still have a lot of things we have to work on. The key is to get rested and get some guys healthy and get ready for a really good Detroit team."
For the Saints, the preparation will come after a victory in which there was a little bit of everything.
A 13-0 Saints lead. A 31-7 blitz by Tampa Bay to take its 11-point lead, which included a 33-yard pick-six by linebacker Danny Lansanah.
An 11-point sprint to the regulation finish by the Saints that was, in order: A 27-yard touchdown run by Pierre Thomas (and failed two-point conversion attempt); an end zone sack of Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon by outside linebacker Junior Galette that resulted in a safety; and a 44-yard Shayne Graham field goal with 2:30 left in regulation to tie the score at 31.
"We were expecting run," Galette said of the safety. "It was third-and-25-plus (third-and-29, from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line).
"(Defensive end) Cameron (Jordan) and I just said, if it's a pass, he's going to get high (outside) – we were lined up on the same side – and I just rubbed around under it."
The prize was an unsuspecting Glennon, and the two points replaced the two that the Saints were unable to secure earlier. The score lowered Tampa Bay's lead to three, 31-28.
Toss in two defensive stops by the Saints in the fourth quarter, including the safety, before Tampa Bay ran out the final 16 seconds, for good measure, and it proved to be a winning mixture for the Saints.
"It's just ebbs and flows of the game," said safety Rafael Bush, who will start at safety now that Jairus Byrd (torn lateral meniscus) has been lost for the season. "They're going to make plays.
"They're in the NFL, they've got players over there, too, that can make plays. We've just got to keep our composure and continue to play, and I think we did."
The Saints overcame three turnovers, all interceptions by Brees, who completed 35 of 57 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns. The second – by Banks, at the Saints' 40-yard line with 1:21 left in the first half – helped pave the way for a four-play, 40-yard touchdown drive by Tampa Bay that got the Bucs to within 13-10 at halftime.
Tampa Bay then drove for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half and scored on Lansanah's interception return to take a 24-13 lead. The Saints responded with a 12-play, 63-yard touchdown drive, and the Bucs answered with a 10-play, 81-yard drive to take a 31-20 lead on Glennon's 9-yard pass to Robert Herron.
That set the stage for the Saints' end-of-regulation dash, and their overtime finish.
The overtime drive began with a 21-yard pass from Brees to Marques Colston and ended with four consecutive runs by Robinson: 5, 6, 2 and 18 yards.
Robinson exited the locker room without comment, leaving teammates to speak on his behalf.
"I think it was representative of how the end of that game went," right tackle Zach Strief said. "He ran the ball real tough at the end.
"That's obviously a huge run, the one everyone will think about. (But) we had a (run) in the fourth quarter where he gets hit at 3 yards, by a nose tackle, and carries him 4 yards. And when you see that – when you see a guy put a man that's 100 pounds heavier than him on his back and drag him 4 yards – you know you've got a guy that's finishing the game.
"We've got a lot of confidence in him. It was a strong finish by him. I think he and Pierre finished the game off real strong for us."
A finish to one game and, Brees hopes, the beginning of something more.