By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
When the official NFL schedule for the New Orleans Saints 2018 Regular Season was released a few months ago this past May, it’s more than safe to assume that both fans as well as respected analysts and observers of the team had yesterday’s Week #2 contest at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the Cleveland Browns — a team that was (0-16) the year before and has won 1 game in the past 2 years — checked off as an “easy W” and a guaranteed victory for the boys clad in Black and Gold.
So it goes without saying that yesterday’s nail-baiting and nerve-wracking near loss-turned-narrow-victory over a scrappy and never-say-quit Cleveland team after getting burned the previous week before in a Season Opening 48-40 loss to division rival Tampa Bay, was nearly too much of a disaster for Saints fans to even think about.
Pegged as one of the League’s Pre-Season favorites to make the Super Bowl this year, yesterday the Saints managed to win “by the skin of the teeth” with a late 44 yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz for a 21-18 victory.
But they clearly were helped out (more like “bailed out”) by Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez, who by all accounts was the REAL MVP for the Saints yesterday.
Gonzales — whom the Browns drafted out of Arizona State University with their 7th Round pick in last year’s 2017 NFL Draft — missed 2 field goals and 2 extra points, while “leaving” a total of 10 extra points on the field that would have given Cleveland a monumental upset victory.
Gonzalez actually holds the NCAA Division I record for field goals made in a career. He was chosen as an unanimous All-American in 2016 and was was awarded the Lou Groza Award (for college football’s BEST kicker) that year.
But yesterday, the only thing unanimous about Gonzales was the universal opinion among fans (especially among Browns fans on Social Media afterwards) and observers that his performance sucked for a lack of a better term.
And as a direct result: a Saints team that only managed to put up 150 yards worth of offense through 3 entire quarters while committing 2 turnovers and a missed field goal of their very own, still was able to ESCAPE even further embarrassment than last week’s loss with a much-needed victory to even their record at (1-1).
But as Saints fans recollect themselves this morning after yesterday’s nerve-wracking experience and reassess where this team is overall with 14 NFL Regular Season games still left to play, this much is evident: the Saints ain’t “Super Bowl ready” yet, not by a long shot — but next week sure would be a good time to start.
Why’s that, you ask?
Because next week, the Saints are at Atlanta to face their bitter arch-enemies the Falcons; who also are (1-1) after their 31-24 victory at home yesterday over fellow division rival Carolina.
Matty… Vick? 😏 pic.twitter.com/AL7c8JWDMv
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) September 16, 2018
It will be a key early season game for New Orleans, who will be seeking to avoid an undesirable (0-2) start within the very same NFC South Division that they won as division champions last season.
But before they can worry about the Falcons, they need to be concerned about things that reared their ugly heads yesterday such as a lack of execution on offense, particularly with the Saints receivers losing 2 more fumbles that now seems to have become a disturbing early-season trend of committing turnovers for head coach Sean Payton and company to quickly get fixed.
This of course came on the heels of the previous week’s defensive effort against Tampa in which the Saints gave up 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards.
So there’s been plenty of “blame” to go around on both sides of the football so far for New Orleans; who must now quickly put the events of the first 2 weeks of the season behind them and get ready for another typical battle in the heated rivalry against those hated and despised Dirty Birds.
So why aren’t the Saints “Super Bowl ready” just yet?
That’s an easy one.
It was clear to everyone that the Saints for a 2nd straight week seemed to lack the sense of urgency that they played with last season, particularly when they made their Playoff push at the end of the year.
But this time around instead of the defense, it was the offense’s turn to struggle.
Saints QB Drew Brees just BARELY MISSED out on making two potential TD passes in the first half to Saints TE Ben Watson and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. that would have given New Orleans a commanding half-time lead.
But instead, the near misses and an ineffective rushing performance by back-up RB Mike Gillislee; only served to compound the effect of the 2 lost fumbles committed by Michael Thomas (who made up for it with another spectacular individual performance of his own) and Ginn.
Fortunately for the Saints however, the Browns couldn’t cash in on their golden opportunities, and only led by a score of 6-3 going into half-time.
Cleveland then proceeded to come out and at times seemed to dominate New Orleans early on during the 2nd half, but simply failed to (as most teams that have a (1-31-1) record in their last 33 contests normally seem to do) put the Saints away for good.
In a nutshell: the Saints got lucky.
Even after 2nd year safety Marcus Williams’ 4th quarter interception that allowed the Saints to finally take their first lead of the game with only a few minutes remaining and seemed to clinch the win for New Orleans, the Saints still ended up having to barely hang on for dear life.
The Saints defense allowed Cleveland QB Tyrod Taylor to essentially make a deep “Hail Mary” throw on a 4th Down-and-5 play for a touchdown to Browns WR Antonio Callaway; who TORCHED Saints 3rd year CB Ken Crawley (burned for a 2nd straight game in deep pass coverage) and made a sensational catch in the back of the end zone, keeping himself within the painted part for the tying score at 18-18 with only 1:17 remaining on the game clock.
Tyrod Taylor finds Antonio Callaway for SIX! 😱 pic.twitter.com/BCWPGQ7PWL
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 16, 2018
But then of course, Gonzalez missed his 2nd extra point of the day; and then even worse for the devoted Browns fans that had made the trip down to NOLA for yesterday’s contest:
Cleveland scored TOO EARLY — as Brees and the Saints offense then methodically got themselves (a 42-yard completion to Ginn set up the game winner) into position for Lutz — whose kick allowed New Orleans get the victory by the skin of their teeth.
Afterwards, the only thing that Payton was concerned about, was cleaning up the mistakes.
Referencing the 2nd quarter fumble by Thomas, Payton told reporters this in his post-game press conference:
“That’s two weeks in a row. Two weeks in a row with the turnovers. I like his resilience, but I like the ball too.”
Later, Payton then added: “I’m encouraged we won, but let’s not kid ourselves. We’re got a lot of work to do to improve.”
So as the Saints find themselves sitting at (1-1) this morning, it’s rather evident that they are clearly very fortunate at the moment not to be (0-2) in the most unimaginable way you would have ever thought possible.
No one — and I mean NOT A SINGLE PERSON ALIVE — would have thought that the Saints would play the way that they have thus far in the first 2 weeks; especially against two teams that most consider to be inferior to a Saints team that was only 10 seconds away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game last year had it not been for a miraculous ending pulled off by the Vikings.
To be fair: the Saints are indeed lucky to be (1-1), but yet they nevertheless still showed some big-time resiliency by gutting it out and coming away with the “W”, even as the role-reversal “switch” from playing poorly on defense last week was flipped over to playing poorly on offense.
That resiliency was something that was present for much of the season last year, and it was very encouraging to see it emerge once again yesterday when it mattered the most.
And with Tampa Bay QB Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s brilliant performance yesterday (another 400-yard passing day and 4 more TD passes for a 2nd straight week) against the defending World Champion Philadelphia Eagles in which he lit up their top-notch defense also, the “stink” that was still lingering from the Saints’ Season Opening 48-40 loss to the now (2-0) Buccaneers doesn’t seem to smell quite nearly as bad as it did originally.
Bottom line: the Saints “got away with one” yesterday — but let’s also remember that in this current era of the NFL nowadays, there really isn’t such a thing as an ‘easy’ victory any more.
So they’ll take it any way that that they can get it.
The bigger issue is that as of right now, the Saints ain’t “Super Bowl ready”. But next week in Atlanta against those hated arch-rival Falcons, would be a pretty good time to start…..
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!