Saints still have championship qualities

Darren Sharper and the Saints got a much-needed win over the Steelers Sunday night. Matthew Sharpe/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS -- Two Dat? Well, it’s still possible.

If you saw the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night, you saw a very good football team. Maybe they weren’t the high-scoring juggernaut they were when they won their first 13 games last year on the way to a Super Bowl title. But for the first time this season, the Saints looked like a team capable of doing real damage in January and February.

Just a week after an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland, the Saints defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 in a Halloween party at the Superdome. In a matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions, it was the Steelers who looked like they were masquerading as a contender.

Memo to the rest of the NFL: The Saints still are contenders. Yes, they’ve got some flaws, some injuries and nothing’s going to be easy. But they’ve got a shot, if they can continue playing like this.

Had they lost, the season would have been well on its way to being over. Instead, the Saints are 5-3 at the season’s midpoint and they’ve got a game at Carolina next week and a bye after that before beginning a stretch where they don’t play a team that currently has a winning record until they go to Baltimore on Dec. 19.

But the biggest reason for encouragement might be that the Saints beat a good team for perhaps the first time this season. The Saints also defeated Tampa Bay on Oct. 17, but there’s still room to debate if the Bucs are a good team. There’s no doubt the Steelers are a good team.

“It was good for us to get a win,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll keep working. We’ll recognize that it is what it is and we’ve got a lot of things to work on.’’

Yes, there’s plenty to work on. But this win came against a good team and in prime time with part of the world watching to see if the Saints were done. Other than the Bucs and Steelers, the Saints have defeated Minnesota, San Francisco and Carolina -- three teams that are a combined 5-17 -- and most of those wins weren’t pretty.

“We needed this,’’ said wide receiver Lance Moore, who had a fourth-quarter touchdown catch. “After playing so poorly last week, it was important for us to come out and play well.’’

That’s exactly what the Saints did. It wasn’t the same game plan they used last year when they were steamrolling opponents. This time, they did it mostly with defense.

Despite playing without injured starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, having nickelback Randall Gay on injured reserve and rookie Patrick Robinson suffering an ankle injury early in the game, the Saints held Ben Roethlisberger to 195 passing yards.

The Saints moved Malcolm Jenkins from safety to cornerback for the second straight week and he started opposite Robinson. Once Robinson went down, the Saints turned to seldom-used Leigh Torrence, who held up well in coverage and intercepted Roethlisberger to end Pittsburgh’s final drive.

“When you get nicked up like that, you’re down one corner and we came up big all night,’’ Payton said.

The Steelers reached the end zone only once, when Rashard Mendenhall broke off a 38-yard run early in the fourth quarter. The defense also had a huge goal-line stand early in the second quarter to hold Pittsburgh to a field goal.

“The defense is carrying us,’’ said Moore, who finished with a game-high seven catches. “There hasn’t been one game where the offense has showed up and done what we’re capable of.’’

But the offense suddenly became capable in the fourth quarter after being held to a pair of field goals through the first three periods. Quarterback Drew Brees brushed off a four-interception debacle against Cleveland and completed 34 of 44 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter: a 16-yarder to Marques Colston to give the Saints a 13-3 lead and an 8-yard strike to Moore with 2:37 remaining to provide the final margin.

“Talk about must wins,’’ said safety Darren Sharper, who came up with a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “You can put that in the category of a must win.’’

There’s no doubt the Saints had to win that game to keep hopes of a repeat alive.

“I’d say it was the best overall performance by our team,’’ middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “It was a statement game for us as well.’’

A statement that the Saints are still the Super Bowl champions and could end up keeping that title.

Yes, maybe they’ll slip back to their struggles from earlier in the season. But there’s hope now because the Saints showed how good they can be -- and there could be help on the way. Porter and Greer could be back soon. Injured running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas also could be returning before long.

“There were definitely things we can reference and build on as we move forward,’’ Brees said.

At a midseason point where they could have been in big trouble, the Saints appear to be moving forward.

“We’ve got high expectations,’’ Brees said. “We’re disappointed with the 4-3 start, especially because of the way we lost some of those games. It was really about sticking together. Everybody outside the building was like, 'What’s wrong with the Saints?’ But we knew in our locker room that we had to stick together. We played as complete a football game -- offense, defense and special teams -- as we have all year.’’