Saints look like ’09 selves in win

It’s about time New Orleans looked like a legitimate championship contender.

Through the season’s first five games, the Saints hadn’t played like a team guaranteed to make the playoffs, let alone defend their Super Bowl title. That changed Sunday when New Orleans crushed Tampa Bay in a 31-6 road victory.

The elements that New Orleans had lacked – deep passing, a punishing ground game and smothering defense from start to finish – were all on display in a lopsided affair against a division opponent.

“It’s good to finally dominate like we should,” Saints left guard Carl Nicks said.

The key word is “finally.”

Just like Ben Roethlisberger should be grateful Brett Favre is the new poster boy for inappropriate sexual behavior, underperforming teams like Minnesota and Dallas have drawn media attention away from New Orleans’ uneven start. The Saints (4-2) had yet to consistently display the qualities that led to last season’s Super Bowl crown.

New Orleans entered Sunday’s contest as a third-place NFC South team behind the surprising Bucs (3-2) and Atlanta, which posted a Week 3 road victory over the Saints. A 30-20 road loss to Arizona last Sunday was especially stunning. Saints quarterback Drew Brees described it as “a game you should win and just nobody plays well and you squander opportunities.”

Instead of prompting cries of “Who Dat,” Saints fans were asking, “Who Dey?!?”

“You’re going to hear it,” Nicks said. “I was at the supermarket the other day and someone was like, ‘What’s going on? You’re not doing good.’”

The pressure on the Saints is such that head coach Sean Payton went out of his way this week to emphasize the early-season positives to his players. Payton said his goal was “eliminating distractions – the white noise.”

The ploy worked. The Saints silenced Raymond James Stadium from the onset.

Chris Ivory – an undrafted rookie whose biggest claim to fame so far had been allegedly assaulting a Washington State student with a beer bottle while in college – ripped off an 18-yard run on the first snap. Ivory finished with 158 of the season-high 212 yards produced by what was the NFL’s 31st-ranked rushing offense.

“The Saints did whatever they wanted to do today,” Bucs defensive tackle Roy Miller said. “It was discouraging.”

Just like during last year’s march to the Lombardi Trophy, a strong running game allowed Brees to pick apart the opposing secondary. He capped a 94-yard opening drive with a 41-yard sideline touchdown pass to wide receiver Lance Moore that left Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib waving his arms in frustration.

Brees victimized Talib and late-arriving rookie safety Cody Grimm on his next series by firing a 42-yard touchdown to wide-out Robert Meachem that landed between both defenders. Brees’ shorter passes were as sharp as usual, too. The NFL’s completion-percentage leader put New Orleans ahead 24-0 late in the third quarter with a 4-yard toss to fullback Heath Evans – the 10th different target Brees hit on Sunday. The only active skill-position player who didn’t catch a pass was wide receiver Devery Henderson.

“Just the ability to hit on some big plays early really sets the tone,” said Brees, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 263 yards with one interception. “It gives you confidence. It gives you momentum.”

Tampa Bay’s offense didn’t have either while the game was close. The Bucs finished with only 42 rushing yards, which forced second-year quarterback Josh Freeman to carry too heavy a load. Tampa Bay also squandered a third-quarter scoring opportunity when Connor Barth’s 33-yard field-goal attempt hit the left upright – a miscue that actually happened again later on a 47-yard kick.

Saints middle linebacker Jon Vilma credited his unit’s success to “executing the game plan, which we hadn’t in the first part of the season.” Vilma also pointed out his squad entered the contest loose after a Friday practice that featured outrageous end-zone celebrations whenever a player scored.

“The best thing we did was have fun in practice. We hadn’t had that in a while,” Vilma said. “It showed today. We played hard. We played fast. The scoreboard takes care of itself.”

The biggest Saints negative was the ongoing inconsistency at kicker. Garrett Hartley, who was reinserted into the role after a demotion, made a 27-yard field goal but sent a 33-yarder wide left. Hartley did receive a vote of confidence from Payton afterward.

“He’s not going to be perfect,” Payton said.

Neither is New Orleans. But if Sunday’s game marks a true turnaround, the Saints are more than good enough to make another Super Bowl run.