Late-game mettle serves Saints well

Lance Moore and the Saints made the plays they needed to late in the game. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS -- The question was about one specific play and one specific drive in Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. The answer Lance Moore gave addressed the question, then went way beyond it.

“We’ve been there before,’’ the New Orleans receiver said. “We’ve had those kinds of drives before.’’

Maybe Moore was only talking about the final drive the Saints went on to set up a John Carney field goal for a 16-14 victory Sunday at the Superdome. But you could take Moore’s words and make them the story for the Saints so far this season. And last season.

For the first time in franchise history, you truly can say the Saints have been there before, and now they’re acting like it. That’s the beauty of a team that has tan lines on its fingers when the Super Bowl rings come off on Sundays.

Even when they’re playing a lousy game against a lousy team, the Saints still can turn on the look of a winner when they need to. That’s what the Saints did for the final 13 minutes and 20 seconds against the Panthers.

First, the offense went on an 18-play, 86-yard drive to set up a 25-yard field goal by Carney that put the Saints ahead with 3:55 remaining. Then the defense, led by big plays from safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Usama Young, shut down the Carolina offense.

Is it something to celebrate when you beat a winless team that is starting a rookie quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) and has its best player (Steve Smith) sitting in the locker room with an air cast on his ankle in the final minutes of the game?

“To me, if we’re 3-1 and not playing our best football, we’re in a good spot,’’ said defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who played perhaps the best game of his career while recording a sack, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hurry and knocking down two of Clausen’s passes at the line.

Ellis might be the only member of the Saints playing his best these days. Before the ugly win against the Panthers, the Saints had lost to the Falcons and preceded that with ugly wins against San Francisco and Minnesota.

The offense that was best in the league last year has looked ordinary. The defense, which was a turnover and scoring machine for much of last season, hasn’t been nearly as opportunistic. The Saints even lost the turnover battle (two to one) Sunday, but all that really matters is they won.

They’re 3-1 and so are the Atlanta Falcons. At 2-1 and with a bye this week, Tampa Bay is still in the NFC South race. Carolina is not. At 0-4, the Panthers have reached the point of no return with John Fox as a lame-duck coach and the possibility of having to play a few weeks without Smith.

No, New Orleans hasn’t been great in its first four games, but the Saints are far from being Carolina. Four games into a season, that’s good enough for the Saints. There is still plenty of time to be great.

“Although it wasn’t always perfect, it was a good win,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “We are just trying to win each week. If you look back on the back end of last season, you will see a lot of hard-fought games also.’’

Don’t underestimate the importance of winning those games last season as it relates to the present. The Saints know how to win.

They did it without their top two running backs (Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas were sidelined with injuries) and starting strong safety Roman Harper, who also sat out with an injury. Harper’s replacement, Pierson Prioleau, had to leave the game with an injury and his replacement, Chris Reis, also had to leave after getting hurt.

That left Young, who usually is limited to special teams, and Jenkins, who is in his first year as a starting free safety, as the only two healthy safeties. Whenever there are injuries in the NFL, every coach likes to talk about how the next man has to step up and make plays.

That’s what Young and Jenkins did as Clausen tried to move the Panthers into the range where a John Kasay field goal could win it for Carolina. With the ball at the New Orleans 36-yard line, Young came up to tackle running back DeAngelo Williams for a four-yard loss. The Saints blitzed Jenkins on the next play and he sacked Clausen for a four-yard loss. That left the ball at the 44-yard line, out of Kasay’s range, and created the exact kind of last-gasp play every defense dreams of.

Yep, the Panthers had Clausen throwing for Dwayne Jarrett, who hasn’t made a play that matters in his four-year career. That’s about as pure as desperation can get. Jabari Greer just knocked the ball away from Jarrett to end any chance Carolina had.

No, the Saints aren’t great right now. But they’re good enough.

“We definitely still have a killer instinct,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “We’re just making stupid mistakes. We’re getting that stuff corrected, slowly but surely. Obviously, you look at us and I can speak for the offense, we haven’t scored like we’re used to scoring and we’re 3-1 and a field goal away from being 4-0. That’s a good thing.’’

It definitely beats the alternative, but the real benefit of the fact the Saints have been here before is they know the way they’re playing isn’t good enough to take them deep into the postseason.

“We left some points on the field,’’ Moore said. “We have to make sure that stops. If a team makes one more play, we lose.’’

The Panthers didn’t make that play. Other teams ahead on the schedule might be capable of making those plays and that’s why the Saints have to get better. Maybe getting some injured players back will help, and there is time for Payton to start coming up with some new magic for an offense that has been way too quiet and time for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to get his guys generating turnovers again.

“If there’s one thing about this team, it’s that we’re battle-tested,’’ Brees said. “We know how to win tight games.’’

That’s because the Saints have been there plenty of times before.