Swaggering Saints hand Rams first loss with knockout blow

NEW ORLEANS — There are the moments that define teams, moments when clubs are forced to look in the mirror and answer whether they truly believe in the things they claim to stand for, moments when they discover whether adversity produces fear and hesitation or eagerness to attack the challenge before them.

In their thrilling 45-35 victory over the previously undefeated Rams in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, the Saints left no doubt that their offense is everything it claims to be: an aggressive, impose-your-will unit that always seeks to win with the knockout rather than by a series of jabs, as evidenced by quarterback Drew Brees’ decision to take the kill shot in the final minutes when he could have attempted to control the clock by handing the ball off or attempting short passes to move the chains.

"Drew is Mike Tyson in his prime, period," running back Alvin Kamara said of the moment.

With just under four minutes to play and the Saints clinging to a three-point lead after squandering a 21-point cushion, they easily could have looked to play the clock and keep the ball from a Rams offense that had scored on four of its previous five possessions. It was third-and-7 from their 28-yard line. Coach Sean Payton called for a safe, short pass to Kamara in anticipation that the Rams would double Thomas on a deep route. That’s the way they had practiced the play all week. Not once did the Saints work against a look where Thomas would be single-covered.

But when they got to the line of scrimmage, Brees spotted the Rams in man coverage on the outside, with cornerback Marcus Peters lined up across from wideout Mike Thomas. Forget the Rams’ defense, Brees was staring into the mirror. He could play it safe or go for broke. He could be everything New Orleans says it is on offense, or he could recoil. He went downfield.

"Ever since I’ve played here, even the first stint, the way we’ve won is by being aggressive," said tight end Ben Watson. "A lot of times when you’re not aggressive and you kind of sit back and try to play to win, or play to preserve the lead, you get out of what you do. This is a downfield offense. That’s how this offense performs the best. We’ve got a quarterback who can make all the throws and make all the reads and check out of stuff. He does everything that needs to be done. So when you get out of character, that’s when teams mess up."

The Saints, who’ve won seven in a row since a season-opening loss to the Bucs, had no interested in winning by decision. They wanted a knockout and got it thanks to Brees, who finished 25 of 36 for 346 yards and four touchdowns with zero turnovers; Kamara, who rushed for 82 yards and two scores and added another through the air; Thomas, who had 12 receptions for a franchise-record 211 yards and the score; and a defense that came up with a stop when it absolutely needed it late in the fourth quarter after the Rams had tallied points on four straight possessions.

There is an athletic arrogance about this offense that is sure to rub some the wrong way. Like the manner in which coach Sean Payton went out of his way to inform the media that their strategy was to attack Peters, who admittedly has been struggling in recent weeks. Payton didn’t just say they liked the matchup. He made a point of stressing that they liked it "a lot." It almost seemed personal.

It also raised eyebrows when Thomas, after the longest touchdown catch of his career, went to the base of a goal post and retrieved a flip phone he had left beneath the padding to celebrate his score. It was homage to former Saints receiver Joe Horn, who did the same thing in 2003. Thomas was so true to the reenactment he says he found the "Obama phone" at a "hole in the wall" liquor store and placed one at each goal post.

Teammates got a kick out of the moment. "I did not know the celebration was coming," linebacker Demario Davis said, "but when he passed me the phone, I was like, ‘Whoever is on here, that’s a (italics) bad (end italics) man, yessir."

The only problem is that the celebration resulted in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that could have backfired if the Rams had scored quickly on the shortened field. (Payton said he would deal with it later; the league is likely to fine him, as it did Horn 15 years ago.) And opponents could construe that as going above and beyond what’s considered appropriate. Not that the Saints care. As Kamara said, "We only worry about us."

For good reason. Their last four wins have been against teams that were either alone and tied for their division lead at the time: Los Angeles, Minnesota, Baltimore and Washington. On Sunday, they scored a season-high 45 points and gained 487 yards; did not allow a sack for the second straight week, against a defense that had recorded multiple sacks in six straight games, including seven two weeks ago; and held the Rams to a season-low 93 yards rushing, nearly 60 yards beneath their average. In fact, the Saints have not allowed a 100-yard rusher during their win streak.

All of which means little to Payton. He all but stiff-armed me when I asked him about the significance of handing the Rams their first loss in nine games and gaining the head-to-head playoff tiebreaker should the teams end the regular season with the same record. He was standing with general manager Mickey Loomis and basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas outside his locker-room office.

"We were talking about this last night," he said to Thomas before asking him, "How many games are there in the NBA season? Eighty-two. At 41 games you’re not talking about. Well, we’re at the halfway point of our season. It’s too early to talk about that stuff. There’s a lot of football to be played. Now don’t get me wrong. In the back of your mind you know (the win) is against a contending team. But there’s a long way to go."

A pair of division games await against Carolina (6-2), as well as one each against Atlanta (4-4) and Tampa Bay, which despite its 3-5 record beat New Orleans 48-40 in Week 1. Still, it’s hard to see anyone beating the Saints if they play as well as they did in the first half, when they scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, the exception being a lost fumble. They were playing chess to the Rams’ checkers. But Los Angeles adjusted at halftime and rallied thereafter, resulting in a 35-35 score with 9:48 to play.

But that’s when Brees and the New Orleans regained its rhythm. going 40 yards for a field goal, then finding Thomas down the left side with the Tyson-like hook.

"That’s why I came here, because of the GOAT, the greatest of all-time," Davis, a free-agent acquisition from the Jets, said of Brees. "It feels good sitting on the sideline knowing the GOAT has the ball. I tell the defense all the time: We just have to get one stop. it’s like getting the ball to Michael Jordan with the game on the line. Don’t worry about it. We’re in good hands."

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