Saints hit winning note on Hall of Fame weekend
NEW ORLEANS — It was the climax of Saints Hall of Fame weekend and three days before the franchise’s 51st birthday.
Two members of New Orleans’ Super Bowl championship team from eight years ago — linebacker Jonathan Vilma and offensive lineman Carl Nicks — were freshly inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame and watched from the home sideline as honored guests.
On top of that, the performance was accompanied by the music of New Orleans legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Fats Domino, who passed away five days earlier. The Saints honored him by wearing stickers engraved with “FATS” on the back of their helmets
So there was a lot of sentimentality and reminiscing going on while football was being played.
And the birthday boys hit a few sour notes along the way, but still managed to win for the fifth consecutive game, edging the Chicago Bears, 20-12, on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They turned the ball over twice and took it away just once, and Drew Brees didn’t throw a touchdown pass a week after throwing the 500th of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. But it was the ability to overcome those shortcomings that was most important, serving as evidence of this team’s growth after a 0-2 start.
“We found a way to win,” Brees said. “It was a good team win, but nobody is real satisfied in that locker room right now. We’re not satisfied with where we are right now. We still feel like we have a long way to go.”
Brees was an efficient 23-of-28 and didn’t throw an interception after throwing two in each of the last two games.
The defense allowed 157 rushing yards, but held rookie Mitchell Trubisky to 14 completions in 32 attempts and 150 yards. Most importantly, New Orleans allowed Chicago to reach the end zone only once.
Additionally, fortune smiled on the home team throughout the game. On the opening possession, the Saints stalled at the Bears 14 and Wil Lutz kicked a 32-yard field goal, but Chicago was offside, giving New Orleans a first down. On the next play, Alvin Kamara ran 8 yards for a touchdown.
Early in the second quarter, Kamara lost the ball and the Bears recovered it at the Saints 35, but after replay review, it was ruled that Kamara was down before the ball came out.
New Orleans held a 14-3 halftime lead after Connor Barth missed a 48-yard field goal. In the third quarter, Trubisky threw an apparent 25-yard touchdown to tight end Zach Miller, who suffered a gruesome injury while falling to the ground. But that pass was rule incomplete on replay and Chicago settled for a field goal that left the Saints with an eight-point lead.
After a Lutz field goal, the Bears finally scored a touchdown with 3:58 left in the game, but failed on a two-point conversion, leaving New Orleans with a 17-12 lead.
Then Mark Ingram II lost a fumble for the second consecutive possession and the Bears had a chance. The Saints stopped them on downs and Lutz kicked a 49-yard field goal for an eight-point lead with 1:35 left.
A 46-yard kickoff return and a penalty on Lutz for a horse-collar tackle enabled Chicago to start its last possession at the New Orleans 43. Two plays later, fellow rookie Marshon Lattimore intercepted Trubisky, allowing Brees to kneel out the clock.
The Saints haven’t lost since Sept. 17 and their five-game win streak matches their longest since they won five straight to start the 2013 season, when they last went to the playoffs.
The last time they won more than five in a row was 2011, when they won the last eight games of the regular season on their way to an NFC South title.
In a lot of ways, the manner in which this game was played suited the Bears with the unrelenting, physical defensive play and offenses more committed to running the ball than throwing it.
But these Saints — who week after week are becoming successful as much for their defense as for their offense — were right at home playing Windy City football in the controlled climate of the Superdome.
“It feels good to get the win, especially in that fashion,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We counted on the offense for years. It feels good that we had to go out there and hold them in a crucial situation.”
Vilma no doubt saw aggression from the defense that reminded him of the Super Bowl season. Nicks no doubt saw determination from the offensive line that reminded him of the Super Bowl season.
And Hall of Fame weekend came to a victorious conclusion as Fats serenaded the crowd with his version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
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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…