He’s right. He was a little chippy about it — when is he not? — but he’s right. Before this game, Payton hadn’t won without Brees his entire head coaching career, which began in 2006. That’s a span of 195 games — 209 if you include the playoffs. But given the future Hall of Fame quarterback’s durability, Brees had missed just three games before Sunday, two of which were contests in which he rested during the final week of stellar seasons with nothing left to clinch. Payton is fortunate to coach Brees, but it’s not like he needed to validate himself because of some long history of failure sans the franchise quarterback. He was 0-3, for crying out loud, and to be clear, he wasn’t really burning to win two of those games.
“I get it,” Payton said, laughing to himself. “It sells papers.”
No subscriptions gained over here, bud. But it was fun to see Payton get a little feisty after a win. As much as he wanted to minimize the accomplishment, it meant something.
The Saints (2-1) won’t be missing Brees for a random game this time. He is expected to be out at least six weeks recovering from thumb surgery, and New Orleans is in scramble mode, trying to reinvent its style, hoping to accentuate the different skills of backup Teddy Bridgewater and fighting to win enough games while in limbo to keep its championship goals intact for a late-season push when Brees returns.
This new life began with promise Sunday before 69,005 at CenturyLink Field. Although their offense struggled early, the Saints scored their first touchdown on Deonte Harris’s 53-yard punt return in the first quarter. They scored their second touchdown when safety Vonn Bell scooped up Seattle running back Chris Carson’s fumble and raced 33 yards to the end zone.
On a day in which the Seahawks, known for ball control and playing fairly clean games, made mistake after mistake, New Orleans played with patience, composure and good fundamentals. Sprinkle in some solid coaching, some good leadership by Bridgewater and the expected excellence of Alvin Kamara, and the Saints stole a game in one of the league’s loudest stadiums.
“I thought we played, in a different way, a pretty complete game,” Payton said.
When you reflect on all the success and offensive brilliance over the past 14 seasons of the Payton-Brees era, perhaps New Orleans doesn’t get enough credit for its grit. At their best, the Saints aren’t merely some flashy team. They play physical. Their offensive line is usually good. They have defensive playmakers. Beyond that, they’ve always shown character during the toughest situations, whether it was rebuilding the club a year after Hurricane Katrina, responding after losing the Minneapolis Miracle or their current efforts to put last season’s NFC championship game officiating debacle behind them.
The Saints are dangerous when they are down, even if Brees isn’t under center. In addition to losing their quarterback, they also didn’t have defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins and Tre’Quan Smith, one of their top wide receivers. They were not fazed.
Bridgewater was efficient. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 177 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Kamara was electric. The running back rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown and also caught nine passes for a team-high 92 yards and a score. He left the Seahawks, like many opponents, marveling at his balance and footwork.
“Going against a lot of guys, I feel like he’s definitely, probably the best, especially at keeping his feet moving,” Seattle defensive end Quinton Jefferson said. “He runs hard as hell. He doesn’t want to go down, and with him, you’ve got to lay heavy and run your feet. Sometimes, we were shoulder tackling, arm tackling. That’s not going to cut it.”
Said Bridgewater of Kamara: “He’s like a human joystick. You give him the ball, and he’s spinning, juking, bouncing off of guys. As a quarterback, you can give him a screen and just watch the play happen. And it’s like, ‘Man, this guy is a bad man.’ ”
Without Brees, it was more difficult for the Saints to get the ball to prolific wide receiver Michael Thomas, but he still made an impact with five receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown. He might not finish with the 125 catches he posted last season, but the threat of Thomas remains and helps make the game easier for his teammates. And he is so good that, even when he seems limited, his production is solid.
Bridgewater figures to get more comfortable, too. He won his first game since 2015 on Sunday. The knee injury is behind him, and he has a precious opportunity to reestablish himself now. The Saints are paying him $7.25 million to be more than the typical backup. He can play. He can win games. He can keep the Saints from letting this season get away from them.
Before the game, Brees sent a text message to Bridgewater.
“He’s a guy who’s very supportive,” Bridgewater said. “Everyone sees what goes on with football, but Drew is one of those guys that’s very supportive in life.”
For Bridgewater, the victory was emotional. He told himself Sunday morning, “No matter what happens, I’m a winner.” He believed. And he triumphed.
Now the Saints can exhale. With a game against the 3-0 Dallas Cowboys next week, the Saints came to CenturyLink Field facing the possibility that they could finish September with a 1-3 record. Their September schedule is the toughest in the league, with four straight games against 2018 playoff teams, including this Los Angeles-Seattle West Coast swing.
Instead of feeling burdened about the schedule and about losing Brees, they competed and made a statement about how good they are overall.
“Well, look, that’s why it’s a team,” Payton said. “There was something about the week we had in the locker room, even in the pregame.”
That something was clear Sunday. The Saints are resilient. And talented. And while one victory doesn’t make life without Brees all wonderful, they looked more than capable of surviving the challenge.
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