Saints avoid disaster with first victory, keep Browns waiting

NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn’t anywhere close to pretty. And it wasn’t over until the Cleveland Browns missed their fourth kick of the game in the final seconds. But the New Orleans Saints avoided a disastrous start to the season with a 21-18 victory on Sunday.

The Saints (1-1) trailed 12-3 to start the fourth quarter. And they gave the Browns two chances to come back in the final minutes. But, ultimately, they won the game thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdown catches by receiver Michael Thomas, a game-changing interception by safety Marcus Williams and a clutch 44-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz with 21 seconds remaining.

“I’m not real happy right now,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Honestly, I’m glad we won. But as a coach you see enough things that’ll keep you from winning more important games. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

“I said to [the players], ‘I’m encouraged we won. But let’s not kid ourselves.’”

The Saints overcame an 0-2 start last season to win the NFC South at 11-5. But this would have been an uglier start amid higher expectations.

New Orleans, which lost 48-40 at home last week to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, started this year’s schedule with a pair of home games against teams that failed to make the playoffs last season. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Saints had just a 4.5 percent chance of starting this season 0-2.

Now they will try to gain some momentum with an important divisional game at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3.

When asked if his team has been missing “a spark” to start this year, Payton said, “You find that during the work week, honestly. It’s not an angel, sprinkle dust or anything like that. I think you find it during the week and improving the details -- honestly, I’m being serious.”

“We’re not looking for a spark to not turn the ball over.”

Thomas has surprisingly been part of the problem in that area, with two of the Saints’ four lost fumbles this season -- one of them coming in the first quarter Sunday. But he did bounce back in a big way against Cleveland with the two fourth-quarter touchdown catches. And Thomas has now set a NFL record with 28 catches through the first two weeks of the season.

Williams, meanwhile, made some amends himself. The second-year pro was the victim of the infamous “Minnesota Miracle” when he missed a tackle on Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown catch in the final seconds of a playoff loss at Minnesota in January. But he came up with the Saints’ first takeaway of the season late in the fourth quarter Sunday to set up Thomas’ go-ahead touchdown pass.

This game was looking like a redemption story for the Saints’ defense overall after their hideous start to the season last week. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore said they “did a better job of competing” and found the “swag” he said was missing last week for much of the game.

However, the Saints' defense didn’t get away clean.

Cleveland tied Sunday’s game 18-18 with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Antonio Callaway on fourth-and-5 when the Saints had a chance to ice the game. Callaway broke wide open behind Saints cornerback Ken Crawley.

Fortunately for New Orleans, Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez missed his second extra point of the night to keep the game tied. And after Lutz’s last-minute field goal, Gonzalez also missed a 52-yard game-tying field goal attempt with three seconds remaining.

This was an escape by the Saints, plain and simple. But in some ways, that’s the best kind of victory -- since, as quarterback Drew Brees said, they’ll still carry “a huge sense of urgency” into the work week.

Brees didn’t try to sugarcoat how ugly the offense’s performance was for three quarters.

“It was really sloppy football. It was not sharp,” said Brees, who said the offense missed as many opportunities as he could remember -- including himself on two deep misses to Ted Ginn Jr. and an overthrow of wide-open tight end Benjamin Watson on a short pass in the end zone.

But Brees also suggested that the resilience the Saints showed could serve them well moving forward.

“These are the games that define your identity a little bit. These are the games that, ‘Man, you didn’t have your best stuff, but you found a way,’” Brees said. “To know that you can shake off whatever it was that was going on for the first three quarters and have that belief system in place … these are the wins that help build confidence and that identity.”