NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints were on the verge of starting 0-2 for the fifth consecutive season.
The Cleveland Browns were on the verge of winning for the first time in nearly two years.
In the end, Drew Brees threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, teammate Wil Lutz kicked a tie-breaking field goal with 21 seconds left and Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals and two extra points.
It all added up to a 21-18 Saints victory Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I’m encouraged that we won,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “but let’s not kid ourselves. We have a lot to do to improve.”
The Saints, the defending NFC South champions who lost a 48-41 shootout to Tampa Bay in the season opener, had started 0-2 in each of the last four seasons, including 0-3 starts in 2015 and 2016.
Another losing streak to start the season loomed until Brees heated up after New Orleans had been held out of the end zone through three quarters and fell behind 12-3.
He threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas and after Marcus Williams intercepted Tyrod Taylor for New Orleans’ first takeaway of the season, Brees and Thomas teamed for a 5-yard score. Alvin Kamara’s run for two points gave the Saints an 18-12 lead with 2:40 left.
Taylor brought back the Browns, who had ended a 17-game losing streak by tying the Steelers a week earlier. On fourth and 5 from the New Orleans 47 he launched a touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. But Gonzalez, who had missed an extra point in the third quarter and a 44-yard field at the outset of the fourth quarter, missed this extra point as well, leaving the score tied at 18 with 1:16 left.
Thomas already had set an NFL record by catching 28 passes in the first two games of the season, but Brees turned to Ted Ginn Jr. for completions of 8 and 42 yards to put New Orleans on the Cleveland 25.
Kamara lost a yard, but the running play forced the Browns to use their second timeout. They didn’t have to use their third as Brees followed with incompletions to Ginn and Austin Carr, both of whom were open.
On came Lutz, who had missed from the same distance at the same end of the field in the second quarter, and he made a 44-yard field goal for a 21-18 Saints lead with 21 seconds left.
“It was a big kick that he hit,” Payton said.
Taylor hit Jarvis Landry for 25 yards and after Cleveland used its last timeout Taylor found Callaway at the sideline for 16.
That gave Gonzalez a shot at redemption with eight seconds left, but he was wide right on a 52-yarder and the Saints escaped with the win.
“It is on me 100 percent,” Gonzalez said. “I can’t be too mad at myself and I can’t blame it on anyone else. It sucks because we were so close to that win and it has been so long and I just let everybody down.”
As the teams left the field, Lutz ran to the Cleveland sideline to console Gonzalez, who was seated on the bench with his head down.
“I really hate that for him,” Lutz said. “He’s one heck of a kicker.”
Gonzalez had a chance to give the Browns a victory a week earlier, but the Steelers blocked his 43-yard attempt with nine seconds left in overtime, preserving the tie.
“Obviously, that is what everybody is going to say – the kicks,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said. “We make the kick here and we make the kick in overtime and before we even have a chance to get to overtime and we would be feeling differently.”
New Orleans plays at Atlanta next Sunday and Cleveland hosts the Jets on Thursday.
“These are the games that define your identity a little bit,” Brees said. “These are games where maybe you didn’t have your best stuff, but you found a way. Offensively that was not our standard. I believe we are going to have plenty of better days where we are hitting on all cylinders.
“We are walking away from this happy that we got our first win of the season, but there’s a huge sense of urgency for improvement as we move on to next week.”