Rabalais: In a playoff atmosphere, Saints rise to the occasion

Maybe they all balance out in the end. Maybe somewhere up there in football heaven, Vince Lombardi and Pete Rozelle and Lou Saban (“They’re killing me, Whitey! They’re killing me!”) are keeping track on a giant scoreboard of the games that should have gone the other way but didn’t.

The New Orleans Saints should have won at New England last month. They had no business losing on the road to the New York Jets two weeks ago.

They should have lost at Tampa Bay on a storm-swept Sunday back in Week 2. And this Sunday they should have given one away to the San Francisco 49ers.

But they didn’t.

The ghost of Bill Walsh certainly tried to push the Saints over the edge. A muffed punt by Lance Moore set up the 49ers’ first touchdown. A Drew Brees interception set up the second. Corey White’s interception off a Colin Kaepernick pass was changed from a pick six into a touchback when an enraged Kaepernick chased him down near the goal line and forced White to lose control of the ball. The 49ers then chugged downfield for a field goal.

Back in the 49ers’ glory years of Montana and Rice and Lott and Clark, San Francisco would have gotten the full measure of the Saints team it used to torment twice a season in the old NFC West days.

But this season? Well, apparently not this season. This season continues to take on the trappings and feel of a special year for the Saints, all played out to a Destiny’s Child soundtrack, a feel good sensation to which New Orleans’ dramatic 23-20 come-from-behind victory could testify.

Instead of New Orleans playing the self-loathing game of “what ifs” and “if onlys,” the 49ers are left to trudge back to The Coast with their second painful defeat in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in 10 months, counting Super Bowl XLVII. The Saints can revel in the fact that they overcame the reigning NFC champions — and themselves — in one improbable, swagger-building double play.

“You’re going to have games like this,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “You have a plan that says ‘One thing we can’t do is turn the ball over.’ We did that, and that was 21 points. But yet we still found a way to win against a playoff-caliber opponent.”

Perhaps because it was the 49ers and they were just here in February for the Super Bowl and they are still pretty darned good, it did feel like the playoffs inside the Superdome. The yelling, stomping, wall-pounding crowd of 73,025 at times poured as many as 118 decibels of sound (nearly as much as an airliner taking off) down onto the field, perhaps because the day seemed fraught with playoff implications.

As much as the Saints stumbled and fumbled and tried to do themselves in with self-inflicted wounds, New Orleans bandaged itself up in the fourth quarter and was clutch, opportunistic and managed the clock with something very close to brilliance.

First there was kicker Garrett Hartley, who had mercenaries lining up at the Saints’ gate last week ready to take his job away.

Are there more tenuous jobs anywhere than that of an NFL kicker? Sword swallower or Mexican national team soccer coach, perhaps, but it’s a short list. Hartley misfired on four field goal attempts in New Orleans’ previous three games, meaning there was a strong chance he was not long for Sean Payton’s world if he missed any more.

He didn’t. Hartley was diamond-cutting precise in the fourth quarter, when the Saints absolutely had to have his points, making a 21-yarder with 7:50 left, a 42-yarder with 2:06 remaining and a 31-yarder as time expired for the game-winner.

“This one,” Hartley said, “is just a little bit sweeter.”

What makes winning like this easier for Payton to tolerate is the Saints did a lot of the things that earn you victories against good teams. They held their second straight opponent to less than 200 yards of total offense, limiting Kaepernick to 127 passing yards and the 49ers to 81 rushing yards. They won time of possession and had just four penalties.

“Statistically, we did all the things we talk about doing to win the game,” Payton said. “We hung in there and deserved to win, I thought.”

What was perhaps most impressive was how the Saints bent the end of the game to their will. New Orleans needed to hold the 49ers to a field goal with 13½ minutes left and did it. It needed a field goal to get within three and got it. It needed a field goal to tie and got it. The Saints conserved clock with two timeouts in 10 seconds before the two-minute warning, then ran the clock all the way down to 0:02 before trotting out Hartley for the win.

And such an important win. This was the first act of the three-game stretch that will truly come to define the Saints’ season. Very quickly comes a Thursday night game at imploding Atlanta, followed by a Dec. 2 Monday night game at Seattle that could decide NFC home-field advantage.

At 8-2 with six games left, the Saints could be better off. They could be worse off.

Maybe it all balanced out. Going into the season, New Orleans really couldn’t have asked to be in a better spot.