By LES EAST
This was the best one. By far.
The New Orleans Saints have won five games in a row, and the best one was the 24-23 victory at Baltimore on Sunday.
Sure they got a little lucky at the end when Justin Tucker missed an extra point that would have tied the score with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter, an occurrence made even more remarkable by the fact that Tucker was 222 for 222 on extra points in his NFL career prior to that.
Even if Tucker had made the extra point, maybe Drew Brees would have pulled off a miracle in the few seconds that remained. Or maybe the Saints would have prevailed in overtime.
We’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter.
Tucker missed and the Saints won. And it’s their best win of the season, one that improved their record to 5-1 and maintained their one-game lead atop the NFC South.
It’s not the best win because it’s the most recent one. It’s the best for other reasons.
First, a quick look at why the others don’t quite measure up to this one.
The fortunate miss by Tucker was nothing compared to the series of fortunate misses by Cleveland’s Zane Gonzalez in the 21-18 victory that started this streak.
The win at Atlanta was also fortunate in the sense that the Saints won the coin toss, giving them the opportunity to end the game without the Falcons ever possessing the ball if the Saints could score a touchdown on the first possession, which they did. Another blemish on that win was the defense allowing 37 points.
The next win at the Giants was solid and triggered a modest defensive turnaround, which has continued, but that performance came against a bad team.
The last win came against a better team – the Redskins – and by the biggest margin – 24 points. The offense was exceptional and defense was solid in what was the most complete performance – until Sunday.
The Ravens are the best team the Saints have played this season. The game was on the road, outdoors, in challenging weather conditions.
But more importantly the Ravens allow the fewest points of any team in the NFL, meaning the Saints were probably going to have to win while scoring fewer points than they are comfortable with, and in fact the game was played in a style better suited to Baltimore’s taste.
But the Saints were the better team – admittedly by the smallest of margins – but they were the better team at playing the Ravens game.
They went toe to toe with the Ravens physical defense and ran the ball effectively in small bites and protected Drew Brees well enough for him to find Michael Thomas, Benjamin Watson and others, including seldom-used Dan Arnold, frequently enough to put up 17 fourth-quarter points against a defense that hadn’t allowed a second-half touchdown in six previous games.
The offense ran for 134 yards and passed for 203 yards and allowed just one sack a week after Baltimore had 11 sacks aganst Tennessee. The offensive line set the tone for all of that despite starting the game with its second-string guard (Josh LeRibeus) and moving to its third-stringer (Cameron Tom) after LeRibeus was injured in the second quarter.
But any Saints victory is bound to include superlatives from the offense. That’s how they’re built.
They weren’t going to get this win without some importance stuff from the defense.
They held the Ravens to 77 yards rushing and 3.3 yards per rush. They got an important fourth-down stop while clinging to a 21-17 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Granted, Baltimore was able to march down the field fairly easily in the final two minutes to score the touchdown that preceded Tucker’s miss.
And the Saints did somehow manage to come away with no points on the first possession of the game despite running 20 plays, driving 69 yards possessing the ball for more than 10 minutes and converting three consecutive fourth downs.
So it wasn’t perfect and it did require some luck at the very end in order for Brees and coach Sean Payton to beat the only team that hadn’t beaten since joining the Saints in 2006.
Nonetheless, once the Ravens kicker’s streak was nevermore, the Saints had clearly their best victory of the season.