NEW ORLEANS -- The rest of the NFC South left the door open too long, and the New Orleans Saints might have just stormed through it Sunday night with a dominant 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Of course, it comes with plenty of qualifiers. The Saints (3-4) still need to prove they can do this consistently, and they absolutely need to prove they can do it on the road, where they're 0-4 this season -- especially since they have to turn around and play at the Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) on Thursday night with the division lead hanging in the balance.
But the Saints made a pretty dramatic statement Sunday night about both their potential and their resilience.
"It's like my grandfather always said." Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "He said there's three types of people or three types of teams in this world: those that make it happen, those that watch it happen and there's those that wake up one day and say, 'What the heck happened?' I feel like all this year we've been waking up and saying, 'What the heck happened?' It's about time we made it happen."
That should put a fright into the other teams in the shaky division. If they couldn't put New Orleans away when it was stumbling all over itself, what are they gonna do now that the Saints have their mojo back?
Brees' performance was especially promising. It was easily his most dominant game of the year (311 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions). And it came on the heels of what Brees called one of the "five worst feelings" he's ever had after a football game when his late interception keyed a collapse at the Detroit Lions.
The list of folks either criticizing Brees or at least questioning whether he was starting to slow down at age 35 had been growing this season. I personally suggested he and the team had lost their killer instinct last week after they let their third lead in the final two minutes this year slip away.
Brees' response? He stepped on the Packers' throat once Aaron Rodgers blinked first -- and was slowed by a third-quarter hamstring injury -- in what was supposed to be a back-and-forth shootout.
"He was outstanding tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said forcefully -- almost defiantly -- after dismissing the notion that Brees has been off this year. "He was magnificent. He was spot-on."
But Brees was hardly alone. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards (the most by a Saints back since Deuce McAllister in 2003). Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks had a breakout game with 94 receiving yards, a receiving touchdown and a rushing touchdown. Tight end Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone after being shut out in the first half.
And the defense found a whole other level of resilience, not only bouncing back from the 2-4 start, but also bouncing back from a 70-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Randall Cobb on the opening possession and a 67-yard pass from Rodgers to Eddie Lacy on the second possession.
The game changed in the third quarter when it was still tied at 16 and, three plays after Rodgers was hurt on a scramble, Saints cornerback Corey White tipped away a Rodgers pass in the end zone that was intercepted by linebacker David Hawthorne. Later in the half, the embattled White intercepted one of his own. Prior to Sunday, Rodgers had thrown just one pick all year.
There were a lot of people asking in the Saints' locker room whether this was the kind of victory that could give them a confidence boost.
On the contrary -- it was the kind of victory that proved they never lost it.
"I don't think we ever lost our confidence," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We've been having some bad breaks. We haven't been playing complete games. And when we play a complete game, this is what it's about.
"Last week, we played 56 minutes and didn't finish. This week we played 60 minutes and finished."