Saints far from performing to expectations but grateful for first win

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NEW ORLEANS – Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas achieved great things with the New Orleans Saints even though little was expected of them.

Great things are expected of the 2018 Saints, but so far the achievements have been modest at best.

Moore was an undrafted free agent who became one of the most prolific receivers in franchise history and Thomas was an undrafted free agent who became one of the most prolific running backs in franchise history.

Both were key contributors during New Orleans’ Super Bowl championship season in 2009, and both were honored, along with long-time team photographer Michael C. Hebert, with their induction into the Saints Hall of Fame over the weekend.

This annual celebration usually occurs closer to the franchise’s birthday Nov. 1, but a scheduling quirk moved it up this year.

Meanwhile, the Saints were trying to adjust their own timetable, having waited a while to get going by starting 0-2 each of the last four seasons, including 0-3 in 2015 and 2016. Last season they bounced back from a 0-2 hole to go 11-5 and win the NFC South.

That success led many observers to predict that this year’s team has the potential to reach another Super Bowl and the team has embraced those expectations by adopting the slogan, “Prove Them Right.”

But the Saints lost their opener to Tampa Bay 48-40 and they were staring at another 0-2 start as they began the fourth quarter Sunday, trailing the Cleveland Browns 12-3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Moore and Thomas were paraded around the field in convertibles at halftime and Hebert diligently went about his business as the crowd squirmed at the possibility of a loss to a team that hadn’t won a game in nearly two years.

Then Drew Brees found Michael Thomas for two touchdowns, just as he used to find Moore, and Alvin Kamara ran for a two-point conversion, just as Thomas used to find the end zone, and New Orleans had an 18-12 lead with less than three minutes remaining.

Then, facing a fourth and 5 from the New Orleans 47, Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor found Antonio Callaway down the middle of the field for a touchdown. Zane Gonzalez, who had missed an extra point in the third quarter and a 44-yard field goal early in the fourth, missed another extra point, leaving the score tied at 18 with 1:16 left.

Brees hit Ted Ginn Jr. for 8 yards, then for 42 and the Saints were in great shape at the Cleveland 25. A Kamara run for a 1-yard loss forced the Browns to use their second timeout, but Brees incompletions to Ginn and Austin Carr, both of whom were open, allowed the Browns to save their third timeout.

Wil Lutz kicked a 44-yard field goal from the same spot where he had missed in the second quarter, giving New Orleans a three-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Taylor hit Jarvis Landry for 25 yards, Cleveland used its last time out and Taylor found Callaway for 16 before he went out of bounds.

There were eight seconds left when Gonzalez trotted back on the field for a chance to tie the score and redeem himself from 52 yards, but his kick sailed right.

For the first time in five years New Orleans had a win in its first two games. For the 19th consecutive game, Cleveland left without a win.

“I’m encouraged we won,” coach Sean Payton said, “but let’s not kid ourselves.”

No, let’s not.

In two games, the Saints have yet to look like a team capable of proving the prognosticators right about their lofty expectations. But it’s a long way to end of the season and under the circumstances 1-1 looks pretty good.

“These are the games that define your identity a little bit,” Brees said.

True enough. The manner in which New Orleans won a game in which it seemed the lesser of its competitor for the majority of the time shows a quality that can’t be quantified.

“You can’t undervalue winning,” Thomas said.

Fair enough.

But if the trends of the first two weeks continue the rest of the way, Brees will shatter his NFL record for completion percentage and pass for more than 5,400 yards while Thomas catches 224 passes.

And the Saints will finish 8-8.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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