Gliding into the end zone, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd roaring around him, New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas waved off teammate Austin Carr, unbuckled his chin strap and practically dove toward the base of the goal post, where he searched for the item that would soon set the country abuzz.
Within three seconds, he had found his prop, a black cell phone — a flip phone, actually — that he’d had placed there hours before. And as he punched the keypad and raised the phone to his ear in a faithful re-enactment of the infamous celebration Joe Horn did 15 years ago in the very same stadium, Twitter exploded.
“I didn’t see it,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, shaking his head with a laugh, when asked about Thomas’ celebration.
He might have been the only one, though. Within minutes of Thomas’ fun homage to Horn, the terms “Michael Thomas” and “Joe Horn” quickly started trending.
There were finger-waggers, of course, as there always are with these sorts of things. On the Fox broadcast, Michael Strahan denounced it, and Troy Aikman — who was calling the game with Joe Buck — pointed out that there’s “no place” for antics like that, especially considering the magnitude of the game.
And to be fair, maybe there was a certain recklessness to it. The ensuing 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty spurred a kick return that gave the Saints’ opponent — the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s last unbeaten team — great field position on their next drive, down only 10 points with a little under four minutes left in a game that had been more like a 15-round heavyweight fight.
But, let’s face it, folks — the celebration was 93 percent hilarious and 7 percent foolish, just like Horn’s was (it even happened in the same end zone). It was also a fitting cherry on top of a 45-35 win in which the Saints declared to the whole country that the road to the Super Bowl — at least in the NFC — goes through the Superdome this season.
That’s potentially a huge win for NFL fans, by the way. The Superdome is a special place for big games, something that even comes through on television. The host of multiple Super Bowls and Final Fours, many a champion have been crowned there in its 43-year history, and Sunday’s game — with its crowd-pleasing collection of big plays and celebrations in a historic venue — did not disappoint as a preview of a potentially titillating January rematch.
“It was rocking, and we appreciate that,” Brees said of Saints fans. “Especially down the stretch, when we needed some stops, I felt like the dome was as loud as I’ve heard it.”
The Rams took their first loss of the season, but they showed a champion’s grit in a loud, raucous environment. Down 35-17 at halftime to one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, they were staring down the barrel of a blowout. But they fought their way back into the game with 21 unanswered points, thanks to a prideful defense that stiffened in spots and one of the league’s best young quarterbacks in Jared Goff, who is being buoyed by the creative offensive play calls of 32-year-old head coach Sean McVay.
But after a long touchdown pass to receiver Cooper Kupp knotted the game at 35 early in the fourth quarter, the Rams’ youth movement was thwarted by Brees, the Saints’ future Hall of Fame quarterback, and his Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton, as they promptly teamed up to orchestrate two crucial scoring drives, the last of which was capped by Thomas’ 72-yard score (and cell-phone celebration) that put the Rams (8-1) away.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this win for the Saints, who improved to 7-1 and haven’t lost in nearly two months. If the two teams finish with the same record for the NFC’s top seed at the end of the season — a strong possibility — this win gives them the tiebreaker, meaning the conference title game could be held in the Superdome.
What’s more, for all the ink that’s been spilled about the Rams’ fearsome, star-studded defense, the Saints’ 45-point destruction of that unit will give New Orleans supreme confidence in any rematch.
Brees, who was not sacked, threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Alvin Kamara ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns, and Thomas — arguably the NFL’s brightest young receiver — caught 12 balls for a franchise-record 211 yards.
The Rams, who were missing star corner Aqib Talib, will likely play better in a rematch. But neither side will forget the Rams’ inability to stop the Saints — specifically, Thomas — when it mattered.
“He played outstanding today,” Payton said of Thomas. “Wasn’t all fired up about the [unsportsmanlike conduct] penalty, we’ll get that figured out and handled. But he had a great game.”
One made even better by his re-enactment of Horn’s iconic moment. Afterward, Thomas told NOLA.com’s Josh Katzenstein he had a cellphone planted under each both goalposts. It turns out, he also planned to break out one of the phones when it really mattered Sunday.
Considering the way the moment added a flourish to a day when the Saints put the entire NFC on alert, it’s safe to say it couldn’t have worked out any better.
“I had it planned, obviously,” Thomas said after the game. “I said I was going to wait until the fourth quarter and help my team and put the game away. And that’s what I did, thank God.”
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