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Opinion: Jameis Winston's season-ending injury will put Saints' survivor status to ultimate test

·4 min read
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NEW ORLEANS – It went down as maybe the most improbable victory the New Orleans Saints have ever had under Sean Payton.

With Jameis Winston knocked out early with a knee injury, the Saints were pressed to beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Trevor Siemian.

And they did it again.

Drew Brees is retired and serving witness from the TV studio now, but it was evident with the 36-27 victory at the raucous Superdome on Sunday – capped by the late pick-six of Brady by P.J. Williams – that the resilience coursing through the DNA of the Saints at times like these won’t quit.

Is there any team more equipped to rally after losing their starting quarterback?

Insert Bill Parcells logic here: You are what your record says you are.

In 2019, the Saints were 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater filling in for an injured Brees. Last season, Taysom Hill took over for an injured Brees and the Saints went 3-1.

Now here’s another challenge, with the rest of Winston’s season now over just weeks after he won the competition against Hill for the starting nod to replace Brees.

In crunch time on Sunday, the Saints didn’t flinch. Instead, the defense delivered the finishing blow and proved it’s hardly about the fill-in quarterback saving the day by himself.

“For the last three seasons, we’ve been in this situation,” Cameron Jordan, the defensive end and team captain, said after the latest drama. “So, it’s not new to our defense. It’s not new to our team. If anything, it shows you how resilient our team has been.”

MORE: 32 things we learned from Week 8 of 2021 NFL season

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New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) is carted off the field after being injured from a horse collar tackle in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) is carted off the field after being injured from a horse collar tackle in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021.

What next? After Sunday’s game, Payton described Winston’s left knee injury as “significant," and the team confirmed on Monday that he would miss the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The quarterback also damaged his medial collateral ligament, Payton said.

Winston, whose revival with the Saints came with a reduction of the turnover issues that plagued him during his Bucs tenure, was injured in the second quarter on Sunday when dragged down by linebacker Devin White with a horse-collar tackle that caused his leg to buckle.

“I cried when I saw him coming in,” Payton said of encountering Winston after the game.

Knowing Payton, the tears for Winston have morphed into a determination to find some new solutions with more than half the season left and the Atlanta Falcons looming on the docket as the next opponent on Sunday at the Superdome. If the playoffs were today, the Saints (5-2) would be in as a wild-card entrant. And by beating the Bucs again (for the third time in the regular season since Brady signed on in Tampa Bay), they have at least tightened the race in the NFC South.

Siemian, a sixth-year pro, proved on Sunday that he might be a viable option. He missed on some throws, but also didn’t commit any major gaffes with a zero-turnover performance. The Saints can win with that, especially when their rushing game – bolstered by the return of Mark Ingram to complement versatile star Alvin Kamara – can produce as it did on Sunday, with 152 yards against the league’s No. 1-ranked run defense.

There’s also the potential return of Hill, the multi-dimensional weapon whom Winston beat out for the starting job but who has continually inspired Payton to find creative ways to use him as a thrower, runner and receiver. Hill has missed three games after suffering a concussion, yet to be cleared from the league's protocol.

One thing for certain: The Saints are hardly doomed without Winston. Sure, it’s tougher. But there may be no coach in the NFL better at managing crisis than Payton, and that surely rubs off on his team.

“It’s always something,” Kamara said. “We deal with it. But I think we do it gracefully.”

Or forcefully. In describing the mind-set that came with the mission to upset the defending Super Bowl champs, Kamara minced no words.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” he said. “We come out every game, strap it up just like they strap up. I think it was important that we came out and punched them in the face. It was that game.”

And now the Saints are gearing up for another type of game – down a starting quarterback – to test their mettle as survivors.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jameis Winston's injury puts Saints' survivor status to ultimate test