Pittsburgh – The ranks have thinned, as three New Orleans Saints starters have been placed on injured reserve in the last two weeks, joining several others who already had been declared out for the rest of the season.
But New Orleans' resolve is as thick as ever.
On the road, versus a formidable opponent which was coming off a bye, working on a short week that included the Thanksgiving holiday, and with the shadow of a three-game losing streak lurking in the background, the Saints dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field.
The final score, 35-32, may not have projected lopsidedness. Yardage totals (538-393), first downs gained (36-20) and time of possession (33:59-26:01) – all in favor of Pittsburgh – may not have suggested a thrashing.
But the Saints forced two turnovers and limited the Steelers to field goals when they needed to keep the Steelers out of the end zone early. They scored touchdowns on five of six possessions (all touchdown passes by Drew Brees). They shut down Pittsburgh's running game (71 of Le'Veon Bell's 95 rushing yards came in the first quarter), and they took a 35-16 lead before the Steelers scored a pair of touchdowns in the final six minutes, the second one as time expired.
"We came out and I feel like we put some things together early, and that's what we needed," said linebacker David Hawthorne, who led the Saints with 10 tackles, all solo. "We needed to come on the road and get this win, because I can't imagine what it would have looked like if we didn't.
"Our goal was to put together a complete game. We've had flashes of goodness all year. It's just all phases, trying to figure out how to come together and win a game. And that's what we needed. I felt like we came out and we executed the things that we've been practicing, and that's a step for us."
That step allowed New Orleans (5-7) to maintain control of its destiny.
The Saints and Falcons have identical records in the NFC South, but Atlanta currently owns the tiebreak courtesy of its victory over the Saints in the Georgia Dome in the season opener. By winning out – including a victory over Atlanta on Dec. 21 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – the Saints would win the division title.
But projecting has been of little concern for New Orleans, which has remained in the moment. And in Sunday's moment, the Saints took apart Pittsburgh (7-5), which led 6-0 before it was hit by New Orleans' 35-10 onslaught.
"Obviously, it was good to get a win, especially on the road against a good team," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought for 95 percent of the game, we did a lot of things well. I'm excited about getting that win. There are some things that we've got to be able to clean up and do better, particularly at the end. But we'll be able to work on that.
"In the first half, if you look statistically, it was like two mirrored halves. The difference was we were able to force them to kick field goals and we were able to score two touchdowns. The second half, I thought even slanted more in our favor, and that's a credit to our players. I thought we did a good job with some of the situations regarding poise, turnovers were huge and in the end, third-down numbers ended up helping us."
The Steelers converted four of their first six third-down attempts, but were 2 for 8 the rest of the game. And the Saints produced a couple of critical third-down stops early.
The first, with Pittsburgh facing third-and-9 from the Saints' 31-yard line, held the Steelers to Shaun Suisham's 49-yard field goal. The second, with the Steelers at third-and-5 from the Saints' 13, led to Suisham's 31-yard field goal and a 6-0 Pittsburgh lead with 14:05 left in the first half.
After the second field goal, the Saints punted and forced a punt before the offense began to sync.
Brees (19 for 27 for 257 yards, with no interceptions) directed an eight-play, 79-yard drive that featured a combined 46 rushing yards by Pierre Thomas (three carries, 21 yards) and Mark Ingram (23 carries for 122), and ended on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin Watson to give the Saints a 7-6 lead that they would expand.
A 41-yard kickoff return set up the Steelers at their 43 on their next possession and in two plays, Pittsburgh had a first down at the Saints' 42. But Ben Roethlisberger's pass in the end zone, intended for Darrius Heyward-Bey, was intercepted by Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro with 4:22 left in the half.
After the touchback, New Orleans began at its 20 and drove 80 yards in nine plays – including a 44-yard pass from Brees to Kenny Stills (five catches for 162 yards and a touchdown) on third-and-6. The touchdown, with 36 seconds left in the half, came via a 4-yard pass from Brees to fullback Erik Lorig.
Suisham missed a 54-yard field goal attempt as time expired in the first half, and the Steelers forced a Saints punt on the first possession of the second half.
But on Pittsburgh's opening possession of the third quarter, with the Steelers facing first-and-10 from their 35 after gaining 13 yards on two plays, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and had his attempt batted up, and intercepted, by defensive end Cam Jordan in the right flat.
Jordan's 6-yard return put the Saints at Pittsburgh's 15; two plays later, Brees connected with Nick Toon on an 11-yard catch and run that was Toon's first NFL touchdown, giving the Saints a 21-6 lead with 11:25 left in the third.
Pittsburgh responded with a long, time-consuming touchdown drive – 13 plays and 83 yards, lasting 7:04. New Orleans countered with a drive that was longer and faster – 5 plays, 89 yards, lasting 2:31, ending on Brees' 69-yard strike to Stills.
The Steelers came back with a field goal. The Saints answered with Brees' 3-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston with 10:25 left, to take their 35-16 lead.
Pittsburgh closed the gap on two touchdown passes from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, but the Saints had achieved the necessary padding.
"It seemed like when they scored, we were able to answer," Payton said. "I think we played a pretty good complimentary game. We hadn't done that in a while."
And though the ending wasn't perfect, the Saints did enough to finish the job.
"I think we've had, for the most part, some pretty consistent performances, with the exception of maybe the end of the game," Brees said. "I don't think that we've finished games very well. I would include today.
"Now, we had enough of a cushion and we were playing the odds, you're playing the percentages. (But) that's not the signature we want to leave on this game, at the end of the game where we're losing yardage offensively and their offense comes on and moves the ball up and down the field in very little time, to make this game much closer than it really should have been.
"So, while we're going to enjoy this victory because we just beat a very good football team – on the road, after a lot of adversity for us – we're going to enjoy this and yet, we still understand just how much better we can become."
This time, after three consecutive losses, the Saints' search for improvement comes after a victory.
"Winning breeds confidence and winning can cure a lot of things," Brees said. "It doesn't mean that you just ignore the things that can get you beat. We've been in that situation too many times this year, where we came out of games feeling we played well enough to win and we didn't finish the game.
"I don't want that to be the defining thing for our team this year, the inability to finish. We've got to finish better."