Baltimore – A month ago, I said that the New Orleans Saints' 33-18 road victory over the New York Giants was their most complete win of the season. A week later, I said that New Orleans' 43-19 home win over Washington was its most complete game of the season. Now, I'm saying that Sunday's 24-23 decision over the Ravens in a slugfest at M&T Bank Stadium was the most impressive victory of the season.
It's not that I'm a prisoner of the moment. Rather, the Saints keep improving and finding different, better, ways to come out on top. And the way they handled business against one of the league's most physically-imposing teams – by exerting their will over the Ravens, on the road – is a memory they should hold on to, with the knowledge that it can be replicated when needed.
OFFENSE: The Saints played to win. I know, I know – they always play to win. But Sunday, against the league's best defense, New Orleans went for it five times on fourth down, and converted all but one of them. And the Saints scored 17 fourth-quarter points – New Orleans has been money in the fourth quarter and overtime this season – against a defense that was surrendering just 12.8 points per game. Drew Brees was MVP-caliber again (22 of 30 for 212 yards and two touchdowns, and no interceptions for the seventh consecutive game) and the Saints were a punishing ground team (39 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown). Even though Baltimore led 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, the Saints never let go of the rope and, more importantly, muscled up and pulled at the right times. It was a gutsy, gritty game for a team that deserves credit for its ability to play that way.
DEFENSE: There are spots that have to be cleaned up. The final touchdown allowed – a 14-yard pass from Joe Flacco to a wide open John Brown with 24 seconds left – simply is the kind of play that shouldn't happen in that situation. But, man, there also was a lot to like about the way the Saints' defense held up against Baltimore. It got off the field seven times in 12 third-down attempts, made a huge fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter, and continued the yeoman work against the run (77 yards on 23 carries, an average of 3.3 yards). Flacco completed 24 of 40 passes and that's a percentage that New Orleans will live with.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Twice this season, the Saints have faked a punt and twice this season, they've converted. Sunday, it was Taysom Hill running four yards on a direct snap on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter (remember me saying the Saints played to win?). That gamble didn't lead to points, but it helped set the tone. The Saints just about were perfect in coverage (Baltimore had one punt return for eight yards, and averaged 16.7 on three kickoff returns) and Wil Lutz made his lone field goal attempt – a 39-yarder that wound up being the game-winner. Tough luck for Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who missed the first point-after attempt in his career to help the Saints win. But the Saints have had their share of those moments, too, and know it's much better to be on this side of them than the other side.