NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints haven't figured it out just yet. They didn't find the magic formula. They didn't open the floodgates.
But scratching out a 26-20 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in overtime on Sunday night is a lot better than the alternative. The resilience they showed by overcoming both an 0-3 start and a missed 30-yard field goal at the end of regulation has to count for something.
"I said going into this game, we needed something to validate everything we've been doing. Guys are working hard, guys care," said quarterback Drew Brees, who returned from a shoulder injury to throw for 359 yards and two touchdowns -- including the game-winning 80-yard pass to running back C.J. Spiller just 13 seconds into the extra period.
The Saints (1-3) should have won the game with a lot less drama. If their defense had held up on fourth-and-7 with 1:51 remaining in regulation. Or if kicker Zach Hocker hadn't bounced a 30-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright with 12 seconds remaining.
But Brees said, "God had different plans."
"It's huge, it's huge. And the way in which we won, too," Brees said. "Listen, if we drive down and kick a field goal, that's great. Hey, we kinda came from behind and did that. But to have that emotion of, ‘Man, we're there, we're about to win! Oh no!' Now we've gotta kind of rally the troops again and go out there and put together a drive or a big play. Mental toughness. I thought that was great for our team.
"That's how a team grows. That's how you come together. It makes for an exciting locker room afterward."
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis -- one of three defensive starters who made their 2015 debuts Sunday after returning from injuries -- agreed.
"We got our momentum back," Lewis said. "If we can keep fighting through this, we'll be OK. This shows we can do it."
However, if this win does wind up sparking a remarkable comeback season, it will go down as the first of 2015 -- not the best.
Several flaws were still evident as the Saints failed to hold on to a 7-3 lead in the first quarter or a 20-13 lead in the fourth.
The defense played bend-but-don't-break all night -- until it broke by allowing an eight-play, 91-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Delvin Breaux allowed receiver Terrance Williams to get behind him for a 17-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-7, though he said afterward that he felt Williams should have been flagged for pushing off.
The Saints' defense also failed to force any turnovers and committed too many penalties.
The offense, meanwhile, was far too inconsistent. Brees got hit way too many times, including three sacks. And he flirted with three potential interceptions. The Saints' longest pass play in the first 59 minutes was just 21 yards.
"I thought early on he got hit a little too much for my liking," said coach Sean Payton, who noted the Saints needed to find a better balance in the run game early to help protect Brees as well. "We struggled finding our niche, and then in the second half, I thought we got better at it. I thought we got better at protecting as well."
Still, the validation of overcoming all of that was vital for the Saints because they hadn't experienced winning for such a long time.
Last year, the Saints finished 7-9, and the attitude and atmosphere inside the locker room turned ugly. Payton and players have insisted that the culture has improved this year, but they said that only counts for so much. Wins count for a lot more.
"I think we were inconsistent. I think in the middle of that game, kind of the meat of that game, I don't think we were real good," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But you can build off of the confidence of just saying, 'It's still there. We can still be efficient. We can still come back and win a game.' I think mentally more than anything it's just a building block for this team as a whole.
"Guys are excited here because it's a relief."