Sunday wrap: Patience of a Saint paying off in New Orleans

Everyone expected the New Orleans Saints to turn it around eventually. Everyone, including the players wearing the black, white and gold uniforms.

"This team is a good team, but we’re better than this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas told FOX Sports he was thinking on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were rattling off 24 straight points to push New Orleans’ season to the brink of some treacherous territory before the Saints’ 37-31 overtime win at home. "You have to have that attitude — ‘We are better than this team.’ We knew we were better than them."

Trouble is, those thoughts are about as useful to a team as a preseason projection or media power rankings. Reputations, recent history, contracts and the like mean nothing. It’s about execution, and the Saints’ attempt to get off to a fast start and make a serious run at a title this year had very little of it. After last week’s awful loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Saints were getting ready to give another one away.

The term "must-win game" is among the most overused (and misused) in sports, and it did not literally apply to this one. With a loss, the Saints would’ve been two games back with 11 to play in the NFC South — bad shape but certainly not in absolute must-win territory.

But with games against the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals facing them after their Week 6 bye, this was about as much of a figurative "must-win" game as it could be.

So the Saints were better than the Bucs? Prove it.

They did, beginning with Thomas’ 27-yard touchdown run on a pitch play to the right side. The touchdown, which was set up by a key 16-yard completion from Drew Brees to rookie Brandin Cooks on third-and-10, cut the Bucs’ lead to 31-26 with 9:28 to play. Thomas didn’t just talk about potential and belief in his teammates; he made a play. Brees made a play, too. And so did Cooks.

Then Junior Galette made a play. The veteran linebacker beat Bucs Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to the inside to sack Mike Glennon in the end zone for a safety. One could argue Tampa should’ve played it safe with a run call on third-and-29 from their 1-yard line, but it still required a big play from Galette. That made it 31-28, and the Saints would tie the game on a 44-yard field goal on the subsequent possession.

Finally, in overtime, Khiry Robinson made a huge play.

"I was just trying to put the team on my back and do what I was supposed to do," Robinson said by phone on his way to a celebratory postgame get-together with his teammates. "Coach just called my number and told everybody, ‘We got this far, let’s get it in there.’"

Robinson followed blocks from offensive linemen Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Terron Armstead and then bounced off the combination of Bucs defensive backs Mark Barron and Bradley McDougald for an 18-yard touchdown.

The Saints, at 2-3, are alive. And they’re riding the momentum of action, not just promise and talk.

"I don’t want to jinx us, but I feel like we’ve got every (hole) filled," Thomas said. "We know we can play with anybody. Just play our game and be successful. We just have to stop making little mistakes. We made a few mistakes in this game we need to clean up.

"That’s what we’re going to do, just move forward from here. I’m going to take this victory and keep walking with it."

CASON A ‘FORCE’ FOR PANTHERS

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Every day in practice, Antoine Cason gets grumbles and head shakes from the Panthers’ wide receivers. Those are the reactions to his swiping and punching at the football as they run past him.

"When I’m driving someone crazy," he told FOX Sports by phone Sunday, "I know it’s working."

The three fumbles he’s forced this season are also a sign it’s working. His third one came on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, and it was a huge one.

With the game tied at 24 with 4:29 remaining, Bears running back Matt Forte cut off the right side of the line and headed toward an unblocked Cason. Forte lowered his shoulders and seemed to have the ball protected well. But Cason, on his way to the ground, took a swipe at the ball and knocked it loose. Kawann Short recovered, and six plays later Cam Newton hit Greg Olsen for the game-winning 6-yard touchdown.

Cason’s hard work in practice has him tied with the Houston Texans’ Kendrick Lewis for the NFL lead in forced fumbles. And it has the Panthers at 3-2, atop a wide-open NFC South.

"My mindset is always to go for the ball," said Cason, a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2008 who has signed one-year deals with the Panthers and Arizona Cardinals over the past two seasons. "It’s something I continue to work through and when those situations come up, it’s coming out."

Chances are his wide-receiver teammates won’t be complaining about him working on it during practice this week, seeing as how it worked out for their benefit on Sunday.

"No doubt, that’s why I continue to do it," Cason said with a laugh. "Whether they’re upset or not."

CARPENTER REBUILDS CAREER WITH BILLS

A little more than a year ago, Dan Carpenter was scrambling to find a new home after the Miami Dolphins surprisingly cut him midway through training camp. He spent five days each with the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets before latching on with the Buffalo Bills right before the start of the regular season following an injury to kicker Dustin Hopkins — all while Carpenter’s wife was caring for their newborn baby.

PEY-OFF HISTORY

In March, Carpenter re-signed with the Bills and received a four-year, $10-million deal. On Sunday, he nailed a 58-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to cap a Kyle Orton-led comeback victory over the Lions in Detroit.

"Last year was a strange year, yeah, but I knew I could still kick the football. In this league it’s about being in the right place at the right time and then doing what you can do and showing what you’re capable of doing," Carpenter said by phone on his way out of Ford Field. "That was a situation I came into last year and it was nice to get rewarded for that with a new contract."

Carpenter doesn’t need a reminder of how fragile the career of an NFL kicker can be. But if he did, he needed only to look across the field and see Alex Henery missing all three of his attempts for the Lions. Henery spent three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles but was nudged out by Cody Parkey this summer. Henery replaced struggling rookie Nate Freese in Detroit last month but might soon be replaced as well.

"How about I missed one before that? I’m not usually worried about what the other team is doing so much," Carpenter said when asked if he empathized with Henery. "The good ones in this league, at this position, are the ones that can forget about what happened on the last kick, whether it was a good one or a bad one. You have to worry about what’s in front of you and your next kick.

"Bill Parcells told me once, ‘You’re only as good as your next kick.’ That’s something I tried to take a hold of and focus on."

STORIES WORTH SHARING

FIVE QUICK THOUGHTS

1. There’s something to be said for a millionaire married to a supermodel who is still as giddy about throwing a ball to another man the way Tom Brady was on Sunday night. The fire he had to prove he was drafted five rounds too late is still there. And while he might not have read and heard everything said about him last week, he was aware of enough of it to stoke that fire that’s yet to burn out. And by the way, of all the things said about Brady last week, the comments about how he’s losing velocity on his throws were the most ridiculous. He threw some bad balls and made poor decisions in Kansas City but those incompletions had the same zip on them, as did the balls he threw for completions and touchdowns this week.

2. The NFL Players Association will be watching the league meetings in Manhattan closely this week. It will mark the first time most of the team owners are in one place to discuss the recent issues with domestic violence and how future cases will be handled. Goodell said he would work with the NFLPA on potential changes to the personal-conduct policy and the sides met once. However, sources said that meeting wasn’t very productive and the union is skeptical Goodell wants its full cooperation in this matter. The union believes any changes to who dishes out penalties for personal conduct (and hears appeals) must be collectively bargained, meaning Goodell can’t just pass his power off to another person or panel without the NFLPA’s approval.

3. The Dallas Cowboys should have done everything they needed to do to get Dez Bryant’s contract extension done before this season because the price is skyrocketing right now. And that’s not second guessing; trust me, I said this on TV and radio when talks were happening this summer. Bryant is on pace for 102 catches, 1,203 yards and 12 touchdowns. Also, consider the caliber of catches he’s making, with Sunday’s leaping grab over the Houston Texans’ Johnathan Joseph that set up the game-winning field goal being the latest example. Bryant wants big money and big guarantees. At this rate, he has every right to demand them and to ask for a contract that rivals the ones already given to the league’s top receivers.

4. Bruce Arians cannot truly believe the low block by Broncos tight end Julius Thomas that injured the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell was the dirtiest play he’s seen in nearly four decades of coaching, can he? I get why Arians was upset, and the play was absolutely illegal. But what made it illegal wasn’t necessarily Thomas’ actions; rather, it was the combination of Thomas going low and left tackle Ryan Clady setting up to block Campbell. Even though he wasn’t yet engaging Campbell, Clady was setting up to do so (or, as our Mike Pereira put it, luring him) and Thomas claimed it was a miscommunication with Clady. Without the lure, that’s a legal play. So yes, Thomas should have been penalized like he was, and yes, he deserves the fine coming his way. But let’s not lose our heads and put this up there as one of the all-time dirty plays because it’s not. And by the way, Arians was a Steelers assistant during the Hines Ward era, so he’s surely seen dirtier plays.

HOT UNDER CENTER

5. Last week, as I suggested the Bills consider benching EJ Manuel, I mentioned part of my concern was Manuel didn’t look Sammy Watkins’ way enough. On Sunday, Orton did. Orton targeted Watkins a game-high 12 times on Sunday, and Watkins made a terrific one-handed tip to himself for a reception to set up Carpenter’s game-winning field goal. Watkins hasn’t had a perfect rookie season so far, but he’s shown the ability to make tough grabs at the right time. Credit Orton for putting his faith in the kid.

TEN EVEN QUICKER THOUGHTS

1. LeSean McCoy: Counting him out is nearly as foolish as claiming Brady is cooked. McCoy and the Eagles’ running game are on the verge of breaking out. Just watch.

2. Eric Decker: Why did the New York Jets even fly him across the country if he wasn’t going to play? Let him stay home, rest his hamstring and come back as healthy as possible next week. But whatever — the Jets have way bigger problems.

3. Mike Smith: It’s a shame to say this, considering all of the success he’s had, but one has to imagine his job could be in serious trouble if the Atlanta Falcons’ don’t somehow straighten their season out.

NFL POWER RANKINGS

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: That’s about as ugly a 3-2 start as can be. But that’s three wins and two losses, and that’s good. A relatively soft schedule and a late bye could make these guys sleeper contenders.

5. Justin Houston: Seventeen sacks in his last 16 games. He wants to be paid accordingly by the Kansas City Chiefs and he’s right to demand as much.

6. Robert Quinn: Zero sacks since the St. Louis Rams signed him to a four-year, $57-million extension before the start of the season. Sure, Chris Long is out, but Quinn should be making more noise in the backfield, considering the price the Rams paid.

7. Jim Harbaugh: The Niners’ players don’t love their coach, but I know for a fact many of them find his sideline antics hysterical. They will enjoy watching his fist pump in response to the Chiefs’ huge too-many-men penalty.

8. Perrish Cox: Two straight weeks he’s sealed a 49ers victory with an interception. A banged-up San Francisco defense has needed him.

9. Eli Manning: We all had a nice chuckle when new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo told Manning to aim for a 70-percent completion rate. Manning is now at 66.3 percent. His career high in a single season is 62.9. It is McAdoo who is now laughing at us.

10. Philip Rivers: Since 1960, he’s only the ninth quarterback to throw for at least 12 touchdowns with two or fewer interceptions in his team’s first five games. It’s becoming a much more common feat, though. Peyton Manning (20 TDs, one INT) and Tony Romo (13 TDs, two INTs) did it last year, Aaron Rodgers did it in 2011 (14 TDs, two INTs) and again this year (12 TDs, one INT), Brees did it in 2009 (13 TDs, two INTs) and Brady did it in 2007 (16 TDs, two INTs) before he got all old and terrible. (That’s a joke. And on that note, I’m done.)