Saints, Payton Proving Us Wrong — For Now

Because I love New Orleans, because I spent three days in the hospital there and grew fond of doctors who threaded a stent from my leg to my heart, I will let the good folks celebrate a little bit. I was the one who said a lost wallet on Bourbon Street had a better chance than the Saints had of winning a playoff game on the road. I was wrong, three-Hurricane-drunk wrong, and may defensive coordinator Rob Ryan buy rounds for the house all week at his favorite dive bar, Ms. Mae’s.

They’d better soak it in, too, till the last drop. For this weekend, I’d say a lost wallet on Bourbon Street has a better chance than the Saints have of winning a playoff game in Seattle.

Cute as it is that they wore new travel sweats, changed their Gatorade color to green and tried Popeyes chicken as a team snack, the Saints did not entirely transform their DNA with one victory in Philadelphia. Yes, they abandoned their usual mode of home victories — Drew Brees, Drew Brees, Drew Brees — and beat the Eagles with a brand of brute-force football we didn’t know they had in them. They took advantage of a soft defense and a rookie playoff coach to pound the ball on the ground and rely on four field goals from recent addition Shayne Graham, including the game-winner as time ran out.

“It’s just, man, believing in each other, ignoring what everyone else has to say,” said Brees, who merely threw for 250 yards and one touchdown while surviving two first-half interceptions. “We know what we’re all about. This was a great testament to that. Coming on the road, hostile environment, great team, one of the hottest teams in football and getting one of those big victories.”

What the 26-24 win taught us, for a week, is to not doubt Sean Payton. Ever wonder why he’s the highest-paid coach in American sports at $8 million a year? Ever wonder why he was offered that five-year deal AFTER serving a one-year NFL suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal, in which players were encouraged to injure enemy players for pay? Other than Bill Belichick, Payton is worth more victories to his team than any coach in the sport. We never should have said the Saints never, ever could win on the road or in a hostile environment. It was Payton who seized a Super Bowl four years ago and exorcised whatever demons had been haunting this franchise since its inception in 1967. And it was Payton who marched the Saints into South Philly and quieted Chip Kelly mania, redefining a rep that said he was brilliant in the cozy comforts of the Superdome but couldn’t survive a smashmouth game in a tough road environment. They won with a running game that somehow managed 185 yards without injured Pierre Thomas. And they won with Ryan’s aggressive defense, which allowed only 77 yards to league rushing leader LeSean McCoy. Know those previous road statistics this season — 3-5, 17.8 points per game, 12 TD passes and nine interceptions for Brees — and how they were juxtaposed against stellar home numbers: 8-0, 34 points per game and 27 TD passes and three interceptions for Brees?

They go into the paper shredder for now, along with that 0-5 postseason road record. “As far as the history of the organization, like I told those players, you carry your (own) history,” Payton said. “I get it. We understand that. And that’s that stereotype sometimes that comes with a team that plays inside, and we can’t change that. We kind of like the environment we play in (at home). And we traveled pretty well tonight.”

Don’t expect the same magic carpet ride on the next trip. The Seahawks are rested, healthy and poised to win a Super Bowl as the league’s most complete team. True, Arizona pierced their home invincibiity by winning there last month, but earlier in December, the Saints were bludgeoned in Seattle, losing 34-7 and producing only 188 yards in offense. As raucous as the crowd was, as brilliant as Russell Wilson was, expect the scene to be louder and Wilson to be just as good.

“We got beat pretty soundly by those guys,” Brees said. “There’s a reason they’re the No. 1-seed. There’s a reason that the road to the championship goes through Seattle, because they’re a heck of a football team. It’s loud, it’s crazy, they’ve got a good thing going there. Obviously, they’ve only lost one game there in the last two years. Having been there less than a month ago, I think that serves us well, what to expect, how to prepare for it.

“But we’re going to need our best game, that’s for sure.”

I think the Saints just played their best road game. Drink up, Big Easy. The hangover comes Saturday.