Among the New Orleans Saints' stated goals this season was to "Prove Them Right."
So far, New Orleans has.
If "proving them right" meant winning the NFC South Division (check), earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC (check), and posting the league's best record (check) en route to showing they're legitimate Super Bowl contenders, then the Saints (13-2) have climbed every hurdle and beat back every argument that needed to be hurdled and beaten back.
With a 31-28, comeback victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints know that they won't have to leave the Superdome for an NFC playoff game, that the only playoff game they would play outside New Orleans would be Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
They earned it. And probably, the people they proved most right were themselves.
OFFENSE: It wasn't vintage, but it was clutch. It wasn't overwhelming, but it was enough. It wasn't pristine, but there were moments of shine. The Saints leaned heavy on the passing game (326 passing yards and a touchdown for Drew Brees, on 27 of 39 passing), but they also punched in three rushing touchdowns – two by Alvin Kamara and one by Mark Ingram, who both entered the franchise record book. Kamara has a single-season record 14 rushing touchdowns, and his 18 scores overall tie Dalton Hilliard's single-season record of 18 set in 1989; Ingram's rushing touchdown was No. 50 in his Saints career, giving him the franchise all-time mark. The precision wasn't clinical, but when you see a third-and-20 conversion courtesy of a 25-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. on third down, and Michael Thomas catches 11 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown, you know that the Saints still are able to scrape together enough production to win. The offensive line hopefully can use the extra time to mend (left tackle Terron Armstead left the game on a couple of occasions) and Ginn's importance was highlighted by that fourth-quarter reception that kept alive the game-winning drive. No backflips over 370 yards and 28:40 time of possession, but the Saints again showed they're made for fourth quarters and late-game heroics.
DEFENSE: I know the numbers against – 28 points and 429 yards, 6 for 13 on third down, 364 passing yards – don't look good, especially compared to the previous six games. But two things are worth mentioning. One, Pittsburgh's offense is really, really good, featuring a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Two, the Saints forced two turnovers (three, if you want to include a fourth-down stop on a fake punt) in the fourth quarter when they needed not to allow the Steelers to score another point. It's one of the best defensive fourth quarters the Saints have played this season, featuring fumbles forced by Kurt Coleman and Sheldon Rankins, and recovered by Alex Okafor and Demario Davis, and a sack by Davis. New Orleans was able to put it together when it had to defensively, and finished with three sacks, six tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits.
SPECIAL TEAMS: It's easy to take for granted how good punter Thomas Morstead is, because every week he seems to have another outstanding game. Sunday was no exception: three punts for a 47-yard average, no return yardage allowed. And linebacker Craig Robertson arguably made the play of the game with his fourth-down stop on a fake punt, which set up the game-winning touchdown drive. That's twice this season that Robertson has made a stop on a fake (he also did so on a Rams fake field goal) and each play has been a significant contributor to victory. Kicker Wil Lutz ran his consecutive field goals made streak to a franchise-record 26 before his 50-yard attempt in the fourth quarter was blocked. That was the blemish on another good special team day.