By Les East, The SportsXchange
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints accomplished all that they could in the regular season – with one game left to play.
As a result they are as well positioned as they could be to accomplish everything they can in the post-season.
The came from behind late in the fourth quarter to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-28, on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They improved to 13-2 and clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
They can rest anyone they choose to rest against Carolina in the regular-season finale in the Superdome because the outcome won’t change anything other than their final record. (Though a 14th win would be a franchise record).
They will have a first-round playoff bye, meaning their first playoff game won’t be until either Jan. 12 or 13 in the Superdome. If they win that game they will host the NFC Championship on Jan. 20.
“It’s hard to secure the number one seed,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Knowing that we’ve done it and knowing that the road comes through New Orleans, that gives us a lot of confidence.”
The Saints came from behind to win for the third time in as many games, having done so at Carolina six days earlier and at Tampa Bay eight days before that.
The Steelers (8-6-1) took the lead for the first time in the third quarter and had a 28-24 edge early in the fourth quarter.
Outside of a kneel-down to end the first half, they had scored touchdowns on each of their last three possessions, driving a combined 238 yards.
On third-and-2 at the New Orleans 34, Kurt Coleman forced a fumble by Stevan Ridley and Alex Okafor recovered for the Saints.
New Orleans drove to the Pittsburgh 32 before stalling. The Steelers blocked a 50-yard field goal attempt by Wil Lutz, who earlier set a franchise record by making his 26th consecutive kick, and took over at their 37 with 6:13 left.
On fourth and five from their 42, coach Mike Tomlin chose to fake a punt and Craig Robertson and Chris Banjo stopped Roosevelt Nix just short of the first down.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Tomlin said. “I wanted to ensure that we had an opportunity to win the game. I liked the play. Where the game was and the time that was left I thought that if we did not stop them, that we would have the opportunity to have the ball last. We did – obviously unsuccessful.”
The Saints slowly advanced the ball and on fourth-and-2, Drew Brees’ pass to Michael Thomas fell incomplete but a pass-interference penalty on Joe Haden gave New Orleans a first down at the 22.
New Orleans overcame a holding penalty on Ryan Ramczyk and a dropped pass by Keith Kirkwood when Brees connected with Ted Ginn Jr., who was activated from injured reserve on Saturday, for a first down at the seven.
“Ted is a big-time player and obviously a guy we count on a lot,” Brees said. “That was a huge play in the game.”
Two plays later Brees threw a two-yard touchdown to Thomas with 1:25.
Pittsburgh still had time to tie or go ahead, though Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 33 of 50 for 380 yards and three touchdowns, had to operate without any time-outs.
On fourth-and-15, he connected with Antonio Brown (14 catches, 185 yards, two touchdowns) for a 19-yard completion on fourth-and-15.
The Steelers eventually reached the New Orleans 42, but JuJu Smith-Schuster (11-115) lost the ball when he was hit by Sheldon Rankins and Demario Davis recovered for the Saints.
“That was a big-time play,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Pittsburgh led 3-0 in the first quarter when Mark Ingram II broke a tie with Deuce McAllister for the most rushing touchdowns in franchise history with a 1-yard score.
The Steelers kicked another field goal before Alvin Kamara’s 8-yard scoring run gave the Saints a 14-6 lead. Roethlisberger’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels and two-point conversion pass to Eli Rogers tied the score with 40 seconds left in the half.
That was enough time for Brees, who completed 27-of-39 for 326 yards and a touchdown in his first interception-free game in five, and Kamara to team on a 31-yard completion that set up Lutz’s record-breaking kick from 43 yards, which gave the Saints a 17-14 halftime lead.
New Orleans took the second-half kickoff and drove to Kamara’s 1-yard touchdown before Roethlisberger and Brown teamed on scores of three and 20 yards to take a 28-24 lead into the fourth quarter.
But the Saints came from behind to win their sixth consecutive home game and guarantee they won’t be playing any more road games.
“Man,” Payton said, “(the Saints) showed a great resolve.”