INDIANAPOLIS — The Saints showed Sunday they can still go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NFL.
They just need to find that elusive knockout punch.
After taking a 27-point third-quarter lead at Indianapolis and watching another implausible comeback try from Andrew Luck, the Saints recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock to preserve a crucial 27-21 victory.
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"When we had them at zero, we needed to keep them at zero," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "We can’t get excited about shutting out a team for a half. We still have to finish the game."
At least it’s progress.
New Orleans (3-4) won on the road for the first time this season, won back-to-back games for the first time since last October and did it with a balanced attack and an aggressive defense.
Mark Ingram rushed 14 times for 143 yards and one touchdown while Khiry Robinson ran for two scores. Drew Brees, the 36-year-old quarterback who attended college at nearby Purdue, finished 28 of 44 for 255 yards with one touchdown in what might have been his final game in Indiana.
The Saints’ oft-criticized defense pressured Luck into mistakes all day, hitting him 10 times, sacking him four times and picking him off twice.
But after Ingram’s 1-yard TD run made it 27-0, Luck dug himself and the Colts out of a big hole with three touchdown passes in in final 19 minutes. All Luck wanted was one more chance.
Brees and the Saints refused.
"Indianapolis did a good job fighting back and we did some things that we’ll learn from on tape," coach Sean Payton said. "There were some things, with a lead, that we could have done better."
The biggest difference Sunday was the quarterbacks.
Brees has played well since coming back from a bruised right rotator cuff and was masterfully efficient again Sunday.
Luck, at times, looked as bad as he ever has. He started the game with five straight incompletions, a first, and he and Colts’ offense played so poorly in the first half that they left to a hearty round of well-deserved boos.
"The first half was unacceptable," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said after losing his second straight. "It’s hard enough to win football games when you don’t shoot yourself in the foot and you’re not going to win many football games in the National Football League when you turn the ball over and you have penalties and you have miscues and you have the errors that happened with special teams, and inability at times to stop the run and we couldn’t run it."
When Luck fought back, it came with a flurry.
He found T.Y. Hilton for an 87-yard TD pass late in the third quarter — a career long for both players. He connected with Hilton again for a 46-yard TD pass to make it 27-14 with 1 second left in the third quarter. And after three straight punts, Luck capped an 80-yard, 54-second drive with an 8-yard TD pass to Donte Moncrief to make it 27-21 with 3:05 to play.
It just wasn’t enough on a day Luck went 23 of 44 with 333 yards and three touchdowns and Hilton caught four passes for 150 yards.
"Egregious turnovers, especially the one at the end of the half," Luck said of the interception in the end zone that killed Indy’s first scoring chance. "It’s really bad football."
It was a strange afternoon — even before the dramatic turnaround.
New Orleans lost both of its coaches’ challenges on one first-quarter series and kept the drive moving when Luke McCown pulled off a fake field goal with a 25-yard completion to Ben Watson. Robinson finished the drive with a 1-yard TD run to make it 7-0.
Then, the Saints took control.
Stephone Anthony intercepted Luck on the first play of the next series. Five plays later, Robinson scored on a 6-yard run.
Griff Whalen compounded things by fumbling the ensuing kickoff. Three plays after that, Brees hooked up with Michael Hoomanawanui for a 16-yard TD pass to make it 20-0.
"They made some plays, but we responded well," cornerback Kyle Wilson said. "We knew what type of game it was going to be no matter how they were playing in the first half."