OAKLAND, Calif. – For Drew Brees, the beauty was in the chase.
On Sunday, Brees stood triumphantly on the New Orleans Saints' sideline at the O.co Coliseum and relished the sight of his backup, Chase Daniel, closing out a 38-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders with a 19-yard dash around right end.
It was a play that told you everything you need to know about a suddenly energized Saints team which, after a disastrous first month, has climbed back to .500 and into the playoff hunt. And it made Brees believe that his football soulmate, exiled coach Sean Payton, was sending telepathic high-fives from afar.
"Oh, he would've been proud," Brees said of Payton following New Orleans' third consecutive victory and fifth in six games. "He would've gotten a kick out of Chase turning the corner there to seal the deal. He would've loved it."
Chances are that the rest of the NFL's players and coaches, particularly those employed by the NFC's other postseason contenders, were considerably less enthralled. Nor should they be. If a pay-for-injure scandal, Payton's season-long suspension and a stuck-in-quicksand start couldn't marginalize Brees and friends, does the thought of facing the Saints down the stretch or in January sound appealing?
"It finally feels like Saints football," said Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, whose 1-yard touchdown catch on the Saints' opening drive produced the game's first points. "But it doesn't feel like we're there yet. To climb the mountain, we have to grind and get better every day. We have a tough road ahead of us. We know that."
For now, the Saints have circled back to a signpost steeped in significance. This was a far more pleasant trip to the Bay Area than New Orleans' previous visit, when it suffered a playoff defeat to the San Francisco 49ers last January on a Vernon Davis touchdown catch with nine seconds remaining.
That began a surreal chain of tumultuous events that included Payton's banishment, the release of an infamous audio tape featuring former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' speech before the Niners game and a contract dispute with Brees that dragged into the summer, among other disruptions.
Now, in a convenient bit of symmetry, the Saints (5-5) will host the Niners next Sunday afternoon at the Superdome, beginning a three-game stretch against current division leaders that will define their season.
"They don't get any bigger than what we've got next week," Brees said. "I feel like we're in rhythm, but I don't feel like we've played our best football yet. It's been a crazy year. We've just now hit our stride. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling."
One thing we learned on Sunday: After losing its first four games, along with any semblance of its Payton-fueled swagger, New Orleans has regained its footing to the point where it can jump on a truly inferior team and kill any semblance of suspense two plays into the second half.
When Mark Ingram's 27-yard touchdown run, one play after a 75-yard kickoff return by Travaris Cadet, gave the Saints a 28-7 lead with 14:43 left in the third quarter, the 56,880 fans at the Coliseum were reduced to roaring out of affectation, rather than legitimate hope. The way he and his teammates ruthlessly remanded the Raiders (3-7) thrilled Brees, who would complete 20 of 27 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns in a smooth and flawless performance.
Using superlatives to extol the virtues of this undersized but unbelievably productive quarterback is always a tricky matter. Before he and the Saints settled on a five-year, $100-million contract, Brees met with some skepticism from general manager Mickey Loomis who, according to Y! Sports' Jason Cole, attempted to paint the star quarterback as "very good," rather than great.
Now that the posturing is over, let's call the Super Bowl XLIV MVP what he really is: phenomenal; a future Hall of Famer; and, in this case, the primary reason a team that couldn't stop a Mardi Gras float and had as many interim coaches (two) as victories through Halloween is just a game behind the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings in the race for the NFC's second wild-card spot.
"Things weren't looking so good when we were 0-4, or when we lost to Denver [to fall to 2-5]," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. "There were plays where we were like, 'Man, the ball would have never bounced like that before,' and it felt like maybe we were snakebit.
"But we fought through it. It's a testament to a lot of guys. And, let's face it: When you have Drew Brees at quarterback, you always have a chance."
There's no doubt that Brees sets the tone for the Saints, in good times and bad. "When you have guys like Drew who, even when we were 0-4, staying eight hours after practice, it's special, man," Graham said.
The return of the J.V.s — interim coach Joe Vitt, who served a six-game suspension for his role in the scandal, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who sat out the first five games because of a suspension (since stayed by an appeals panel) and slow recovery from knee surgery — also provided the locker room with an infusion of leadership.
The Saints' formerly pathetic defense looked far more stout and spirited on Sunday, with Malcolm Jenkins picking off a first-quarter Carson Palmer pass and racing 55 yards for a touchdown and fellow safety Roman Harper ruining Oakland's next possession with an end-zone interception on the 17th play of the drive.
Offensively, New Orleans displayed its new-found balance, with halfbacks Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas combining to rush for 134 yards on 25 carries.
To Brees, however, the sweetest run of all was his backup's garbage-time bootleg, which came with two minutes remaining and the Saints facing a third-and-6 from the Raiders' 36-yard line. Daniel faked a handoff and outraced several Oakland defenders to the right edge.
Nineteen yards later, it was all over but the kneeling.
"Put it this way — I wouldn't have made it around the corner," Brees said. "No chance. I'm glad we ended with the ball in our hands [Sunday]. Finishing [off] a game, finishing [off] a team was nice. And I'm happy that I didn't have to go back out on the field."
If Brees takes the field in January, with another Super Bowl still in his sights, it will constitute one of the great comeback stories in recent NFL memory — and make a lot of rivals regret that he and the Saints were able to turn the corner, even with their coach in exile.
2. You'd have wedged me into a straitjacket had I written a few months ago that the Cardinals are desperately hoping Kevin Kolb can return next week in order to have any hope of saving their season. This comes after quarterback John Skelton was yanked for rookie Ryan Lindley in Sunday's 23-19 defeat to the Falcons.
3. Twice this season, Panthers coach Ron Rivera has had a chance to close out a game against an NFC South rival by going for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield. Twice, he has punted. Twice, following Sunday's stomach punch of a 27-21 overtime defeat to the Bucs, he has lost. Someone pour the man a stiff drink; actually, make it a double.
4. The Bucs, who fought back from a 21-10 deficit with six minutes remaining in regulation, have won five of six to join the Indianapolis Colts as the 2012 season's most pleasant surprises. Even better, Josh Freeman is starting to resemble the cool, consistently clutch and dripping-with-potential passer we saw in 2010.
5. When the Arrowhead Stadium stands are half filled and the Chiefs fans in attendance show up wearing black – not to honor Johnny Cash but to advocate for the dismissal of general manager Scott Pioli – it's hard to imagine that K.C. owner Clark Hunt won't gravitate toward that direction. The Chiefs are now 1-9 after Sunday's 28-6 defeat to the Bengals.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Les Miles.
2. How an erroneous challenge by Falcons coach Mike Smith could provoke a 15-yard penalty and prevent an otherwise-automatic replay review from taking place. After Atlanta's Jason Snelling lost the football after a seven-yard reception midway through the third quarter, the fumble was headed out of bounds before Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler dove toward the bench area and flipped it back into play. Safety Rashad Johnson recovered near the sideline, giving Arizona one of its six takeaways on the afternoon. Smith, unconvinced that the entire sequence had taken place inbounds, threw his red challenge flag. Uh oh. Since all change-of-possession plays are subject to automatic review (a relatively new change), that was an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the coach's part, costing the Falcons 15 yards.
OK, I can see that. Yet, ridiculously, the penalty also meant that the play would not be reviewed. Seriously? For throwing a flag at the wrong time? I'm surprised there wasn't a third sanction on Smith: no more timeouts — for the rest of the season. I've addressed some of my issues with the current replay-review system, and overly punitive rules like this one only serve to make it more convoluted. Since the Falcons won the game, Smith probably won't make a huge deal out of this. However, I'm going to stay loud on this subject until the competition committee recommends a rules change.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I like Bart Scott. The veteran linebacker is one of my favorite interview subjects, and it was good to catch up with him at the Jets' training facility on Wednesday afternoon. I enjoy his bluntness, his honesty and his sense of humor. And now that I've thrown out all that love — naturally — I'm going to write a few things that will undoubtedly make him mad. Scott, apparently angered by the New York Daily News story last week that featured quotes from Jets guard Matt Slauson and several anonymous teammates ripping Tim Tebow, created a locker-room spectacle following New York's 27-13 victory over the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday. He openly tried to start a "media mutiny" (which sounds sexier than boycott, apparently) by insisting that his fellow defenders answer every question from reporters with, "Both teams played hard." He upbraided at least one teammate (Bryan Thomas) for failing to comply and was told by another (Yeremiah Bell), "Stop. Just stop." To Scott's credit, after realizing his quest was futile, he relented and gave a composed and informative group interview. Yet the fact that he'd already engaged in his third contentious locker-room sequence of the season was not a good look, and it was totally unnecessary.
For one thing, what had the Jets (4-6) really accomplished? They're still an under-.500 team that's a long shot to make the playoffs and has a laughable bluster-to-achievement ratio, at least since the start of 2011. Secondly, even if there was a humorous edge to Scott's stunt, why give reporters (and, by extension, their readers and viewers) the sense that articles such as the one that came out last Wednesday cut so deeply? Given that the Jets play in, you know, THE NATION'S BIGGEST AND LOUDEST MEDIA MARKET, with a lively and headline-hungry press corps, making a fuss over a story isn't likely to discourage similar coverage in the future. All it does, in this case, is make the Jets look hyper-sensitive and focused on the wrong things. Ryan harped on wanting Scott and his teammates to be stand-up guys (while decrying anonymous quotes as "cowardly") during his news conference last Wednesday. However, running back Shonn Greene – who weighed in on the Tebow/Mark Sanchez situation in my column that posted Wednesday night apparently didn't get the memo, nor did the team official who issued a statement disputing the quotes Thursday morning as a " source close to Shonn Greene." Ah, irony is not dead — but the media mutiny is. And all of this makes me super excited about my next visit to a Jets locker-room setting. As a certain linebacker I greatly admire might say, "Can't wait!"
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I'm paid a lot of $ to make tough catches. I feel like [expletive] right now."
– Text Sunday afternoon from Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who couldn't come down with a fourth-down sideline pass from Ryan Lindley inside the Falcons' 5-yard-line in the final minutes of Arizona's defeat.
"Man mike it was bad we didn't show up today"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Falcons wideout Roddy White.
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