Deflated in Detroit one week. Sublime in the Superdome the next.
And just like that, Drew Brees and the suddenly resurgent New Orleans Saints have first place in the NFC South division within their immediate grasp.
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Brees completed 27 of 32 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns, New Orleans’ defense produced big plays in the clutch and the Saints ended the Green Bay Packers’ four-game winning streak, 44-23 on Sunday night.
"It’s been a long time coming," Brees said. "Obviously, we’ve had our fair share of struggles early on here. We’ve lost some heart-breakers. All we talked about all week long is just coming together as a team and playing a complete game as a team. … It was a perfect representation of that."
Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks had a 50-yard touchdown catch and a 4-yard scoring run, and tight end Jimmy Graham caught a touchdown pass. The Saints (3-4) pulled even in victories with Carolina (3-4-1), setting up a Thursday night showdown for first place in the NFC South.
Aaron Rodgers, intercepted only once in Green Bay’s first seven games, was picked off twice on tipped passes and sacked three times. He still passed for 418 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, but it was not nearly enough to prevent the Packers (5-3) from falling a game behind NFC North leader Detroit.
Rodgers, who also complained of a sore hamstring, called the Packers’ performance "uncharacteristic of our team and myself."
"Just taking points off the board is tough. We had chances," Rodgers said, lamenting three promising first half drives that ended in field goals. "We would have had to score 45 to win tonight and we could have if we had done a better job taking care of the football and scoring in the red zone with touchdowns."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he kept Rodgers in the shot gun formation to help him play through his sore hamstring and thought Rodgers "was smart" in avoiding exposure to further injury. McCarthy also dismissed the idea that the raucous environment in the Superdome, where the Saints are unbeaten since 2012, was an over-riding factor.
"I don’t think a whole lot of defense was played here tonight, but they got turnovers," McCarthy said.
Saints coach Sean Payton wasn’t complaining about the 491 net yards his defense gave up, given the big plays the unit produced.
"That’s one of the best offenses in the league," Payton said about Green Bay. "That was a good team win in all areas."
Except perhaps in the punting game — because there were no punt by either team, marking only the third time that’s happened in NFL history. It has now happened twice this season, both times involving Green Bay, starting with the Packers’ 38-17 victory over Chicago on Sept. 28.
Cameron Jordan had two sacks for New Orleans, one which forced a field goal in the first half. Kasim Edebali also had two sacks for New Orleans, his second on reserve QB Matt Flynn, who was in for mop-up duty and fumbled on the play.
Brees completed all 11 of his passes in the second half, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Hill, as the Saints improved to 3-0 at home this season. It also marked New Orleans’ 14th straight victory in a night game in the Superdome. Most of those games weren’t close, and the latest one followed suit.
Green Bay was without two starting defensive backs: cornerback Sam Shields and safety Morgan Burnett. Compounding matters for the Packers’ defense was the strong running of Mark Ingram, which only made Brees’ play-action fakes more effective. Carrying a heavy load in the absence of injured running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson, Ingram had 24 carries for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown.
"Mark had a fantastic game. I thought we had good balance. Credit the offensive line," Payton said. "The balance helped us tonight because we got some advantageous looks with heavy play-action shots downfield out of some run looks."
Those included a 45-yard completion to Kenny Stills, which set up Cooks’ first TD.
Packers running back Eddie Lacy, who grew up in the New Orleans area, had 181 yards from scrimmage — including 123 yards on eight catches — but was stopped on fourth-and-short in the third quarter. Soon after, Graham scored his first touchdown since injuring his shoulder in Week 5, giving New Orleans a two-score lead.
The Saints’ first interception came when the Packers were in range of a go-head score early in the third quarter. Cornerback Corey White tipped a pass intended for Andrew Quarless near the goal line and linebacker David Hawthorne caught it. That led to Cooks’ second TD, which gave the Saints the lead for good.
Payton set up New Orleans’ fourth-down stop by challenging the spot of a reception near the first-down marker. Initially ruled a first down, the spot was moved back a yard, then Hawthorne and defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker stuffed Lacy.
White made New Orleans’ second interception in the fourth quarter.
NOTES: Green Bay’s Mason Crosby and New Orleans’ Shayne Graham each kicked three field goals in the first half, after which the score was tied at 16.