Official team photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Green Bay Packers game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, October 26, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
In the first half, the New Orleans Saints matched Green Bay blow for blow. In the second, they simply blew by the Packers.
Pasted together, the two halves Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome formed the Saints' most complete game of the season, a 44-23, nationally televised dismantling of an opponent that entered the game on a four-game winning streak and had been ruthlessly efficient in doing so.
"Without question," Drew Brees said, responding to the question of whether it was the best performance of the season for the Saints (3-4). "It's been a long time coming.
"Obviously, we've had our share of struggles early on here. We've lost some heart-breakers. All we talked about all week long is coming together as a team and playing a complete game as a team. Come out here and don't look at the scoreboard. Just worry about execution. Each series, each play, one at a time. It was a perfect representation of that."
It kept the Saints perfect at home this season (3-0), and winners of 11 straight at the Superdome dating back to last season. Also, the Saints now have won 12 consecutive home games in prime time.
And while they still are game below .500 for the season, that mark is almost good enough for first place in the NFC South Division, heading into a Thursday night game at Carolina (3-4-1), which leads by mere percentage points.
"I felt like the challenge coming into this week was, obviously, coming off a tough loss the way we lost last week," Coach Sean Payton said, referring to the Saints' 24-23 loss in Detroit, their third loss this season of three or less points. The Saints led the Lions 23-10 with a little more than five minutes remaining.
"It's not easy coming to work after a game like we had a week ago," Payton said. "I thought the preparation process was good. I felt like we played a real good team and to be able to make enough plays and get the turnovers and things we talked about go in our favor … it is a credit to our team and we will go from there."
The Saints fended off the shock of a 70-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb on the fifth play of the game, and a 67-yard screen pass from Rodgers to Eddie Lacy on Green Bay's eighth offensive play, and administered their own jolt in the second half, in the form of two interceptions and a fourth-down stop defensively, and four consecutive touchdown drives.
"I don't think they slowed us down at all offensively," Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. "We dropped the ball that was an interception. I don't think a whole lot of defense was played, but they got the turnovers. You win the turnover ratio, you have a good chance of winning games."
Perhaps, McCarthy was correct in the assessment that not a lot of defense was played. The Packers totaled 491 yards, with Rodgers (28 for 39 for 418 yards and a touchdown) leading the way. The Saints answered with 495, spearheaded by huge games from Brees (27 for 32 for 311 yards and three touchdowns) and running back Mark Ingram (a career-high 24 carries for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown).
But the Saints played just enough defense in each half – specifically, holding the Packers to three field goals in the first half, then intercepting a pair of deflected passes and producing three sacks in the second half – to turn a close game into a rout.
Neither team punted. Each scored a touchdown and kicked three field goals in the first half.
For the Saints, that turned out to be critical. Green Bay's field goals came after the Saints stiffened defensively after the Packers had driven to the New Orleans 3-, 31- and 13-yard lines.
"It was huge," cornerback Corey White said. "It makes a difference holding an offense like that to three points. We did a good job of holding them and getting the ball back to Drew."
The Saints answered Green Bay drive for drive, then drove away in the third and fourth quarters.
After turning over the ball on downs on the opening drive of the second half, with Green Bay taking possession at its 43-yard line, the Saints bent as the Packers drove to their 6-yard line. But from there the Saints stiffened – Lacy ran for a yard, Rodgers threw incomplete and on third-and-goal, White perfectly timed a slant route to the left intended for tight end Andrew Quarless, batted the ball in the air and watched linebacker David Hawthorne intercept it at the 2 and return it 10 yards.
The Saints needed just four plays to drive 88 yards – an 18-yard run by Ingram, consecutive passes to Jimmy Graham for 20 yards and a 50-yard strike from Brees to Brandin Cooks (six catches, 94 yards) to give New Orleans at 23-16 lead.
Green Bay's next drive ended with the Packers turning over the ball on downs – Hawthorne and Tyrunn Walker combined on the stuff of Lacy at the Packers' 40-yard line – and the Saints needed another four plays to drive 40 yards for a touchdown, a 22-yard pass from Brees to Graham.
White intercepted his first pass of the season to end Green Bay's next drive, a pass that caromed off the hands of Packers receiver Davante Adams. The Saints' offense, again, cashed in courtesy of a seven-play, 71-yard drive that ended on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Josh Hill and bumped the lead to 37-16 with 9:51 left.
Green Bay scored on an 11-play, 80-yard drive to pull to within 37-23. The Packers' onside kick was recovered by Saints tight end Benjamin Watson at the Packers' 32-yard line and from there, Ingram carried on five consecutive downs and scored from 21 yards out.
"My grandfather always said there's three types of people, three types of teams," Brees said. "Those that make it happen, those that watch it happen and those who wake up one day and say, 'What the heck happened?'
"I feel like all this year, we've been waking up and saying, 'What the heck happened?' And it's about time we made it happen."