NEW ORLEANS -- Heading into Sunday, Drew Brees was averaging 400 yards, 3.5 touchdowns and zero wins in the New Orleans Saints’ first two home games of the season.
The Saints needed more. And they got it.
In the process, the 37-year-old Brees moved past Peyton Manning into first place in NFL history with 15 career 400-yard games.
“These are defining wins,” Brees said. “These are ones you can draw from as the season goes along and really get a lot of strength from. Also it gives you great confidence and poise, I think, when those situations arise in the future.
"Honestly, we’ve played five games and we’ve had five games just like that."
The Saints (2-3) are now clinging to life after losing their first two games in the final minute and winning their past two in the final two minutes.
"It's good to get one of those wins. We've had a couple now in the last two," coach Sean Payton said, referring to New Orleans' rally from 13 points down over the final seven minutes at the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago before a bye in Week 5.
"The first three didn’t go our way," Brees said. "And that’s why as we were sitting there 0-3, heading to San Diego, we felt like, ‘We’re battle-tested. We’ve been in these situations. We’re just one play away, and yet we’re ascending. We just need one of these to go our way.’ And sure enough, we found a way to win that one in San Diego.
"And I would say the difference between today’s victory and just the mindset and the demeanor compared to the ones prior was just, ‘We’ve been here before, and we know what it’s gonna take to win this game.’ Listen, we knew it was gonna be an all-day sucker. We knew it was gonna be a four-quarter deal even when we jumped up 21-0."
There were plenty of heroes on Sunday. Rookie kicker Wil Lutz nailed the clutch 52-yard field goal with 11 seconds left after an up-and-down start to his career that included a 53-yard miss earlier Sunday.
Saints receiver Brandin Cooks caught seven passes for a career-high 173 yards -- including an 87-yard touchdown in the first quarter while New Orleans was building its early 21-0 lead. Tight end Coby Fleener caught a 50-yard TD pass and ran in a sneaky 2-yard touchdown that he described as a "tight end around."
But Brees was still the driving force, as he has been now for more than a decade in New Orleans.
Astronomical passing numbers have become routine for Brees for two reasons -- because he and the passing offense led by Sean Payton are among the best in NFL history, and because the Saints’ defensive woes have forced Brees to throw for 465 yards and 4 touchdowns to win games.
Last year, Brees had to throw for 7 touchdowns in a 52-49 track meet against the New York Giants.
On this Sunday, the Saints defense started great before imploding. They were hurt most by three costly pass-interference penalties that set up Carolina touchdowns inside the 2-yard line (one very controversial call against safety Kenny Vaccaro, one blatant call against cornerback Sterling Moore and one in-between call against cornerback Brian Dixon).
Payton was justifiably irked by the call against Vaccaro, saying, "I just wish I had the opportunity to challenge Vaccaro's pass interference. That would've been a nice challenge."
Vaccaro was bothered, too, saying he made sure to turn his head and make a play on the ball -- a huge momentum shifter since it gave Carolina new life on fourth down.
But that wasn't the only play that hurt the Saints' defense -- which is why Vaccaro said he refused to let the defense take Monday off after Payton told players they could have one.
“Coach gave us the day off, and I was like, 'No, I want the whole defense to meet tomorrow with the coaches and we’re going to go through this whole tape,'" Vaccaro said. "I felt like we won the game, but I don’t have a good taste in my mouth. I think there are some things out there that I know we didn’t do that we need to execute. Little things that are going to cost us in the future."
No team has gained more yards or allowed more yards than the Saints since the start of the 2012 season -- which is why they have been hovering around .500 for that entire stretch (7-9 in 2012, 11-5 in 2013, 7-9 in 2014, 7-9 in 2015, 2-3 this year).
It’s hard to expect any more consistency going forward this year. But the good news is that the defense is getting healthier, with No. 1 cornerback Delvin Breaux expected back soon.
And the better news is that Brees has still got the touch.