Saints open new season with a doozy of a win

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The 2022 New Orleans Saints introduced themselves to us Sunday afternoon.

They were playing their most familiar and most bitter rivals – the Falcons – in Atlanta. It was an opponent the Saints had mostly dominated in recent seasons.

But, this was a new Saints team, a new Falcons team, a new season. And there were a lot of questions to be answered.

How would Jameis Winston perform on a surgically repaired knee that sidelined him for the final 10½ games last season?

How would Michael Thomas perform on a twice surgically repaired ankle that cost him all of last season and most of the one before that?

How would the offensive line handle the free-agent loss of standout left tackle Terron Armstead, especially with the absence of rookie No. 1 draft choice Trevor Penning (Armstead’s ultimate replacement) and the preseason time lost by new starter James Hurst to a foot injury?

How would a defense that has been really good in recent seasons perform in the wake of the recent trade of one starter (C.J. Gardner-Johnson) and the injury-induced absence of another starter (Paulson Adebo)?

And then the biggest question of all: How would the whole team perform in its first game under new head coach Dennis Allen after Sean Payton had run this very successful program since 2006?

The answers came in the form of an improbable 27-26 Saints victory in which the outcome largely belied the three hour-plus performance.

It was like sitting through a disappointing movie featuring an all-star cast for longer than it seemed to deserve in increasingly fading hopes that the payoff at the end would be worth the wait.

Winston and Thomas (and the receiving corps further bolstered by the additions of Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave) did virtually nothing for three quarters – partly, but not exclusively, because the offensive line placed Winston under so much duress that the playmaking opportunities evaporated almost as soon as the football was snapped.

The defense, whose performance in recent seasons provided Allen with the opportunity he know has, was equally if not more disappointing for the first 45-plus minutes.

The ease with which the Falcons offense ran the ball and dictated the home team’s superiority inevitably raised questions about whether Allen’s adjustment to being head coach while continuing to call the defense (and the co-coordinator duties shared by line coach Ryan Nielsen and secondary coach Kris Richard) might be a more challenging transition than was generally presumed.

The Falcons clearly and consistently outplayed the Saints in all three phases for more than three quarters.

When improbable comebacks happen, pivotal moments don’t necessarily scream out in real time, “Hey, remember this. It’s a pivotal moment.”

Such a moment happened rather inconspicuously early in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons led 23-10 and reached the Saints four. Then they committed a false start and Marcus Mariota threw two incompletions and a field goal produced a 16-point lead with 12:41 left.

That left a deficit that theoretically could be overcome with two scores and enough time for two possessions that could produce such scores.

But the Saints looked like anything other than a team capable of taking advantage of an opportunity with such a tiny margin for error.

Then both teams made accommodations to the circumstances.

The Saints went to a more aggressive hurry-up offense and the Falcons went to a less aggressive approach, emphasizing coverage over pass rush, presumably to sacrifice yards for seconds.

And everything changed.

Winston thrived in the absence of a pass rush and connected with Juwan Johnson for 26 yards, Alvin Kamara for 15 yards, Landry for 31 yards and then Thomas for a three-yard touchdown. He added a two-point conversion toss to Olave to create a one-score game with more than 11 minutes remaining.

That drive energized the entire Saints team and seemed to insert some timidity into the Falcons. Thomas was visibly eager to get back on the field, pacing the sideline and grabbing his helmet in anticipation of the defense getting the ball back for the offense.

The defense accommodated – after allowing one first down.

Winston returned to the field at his 14-yard line with a little more than seven minutes remaining.

He had completions of 20 yards to Olave, seven to Landry, 21 and 20 to Thomas, 14 to Landry and a nine-yard touchdown to Thomas, giving the Saints a chance to tie with 3:38 left.

But offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who had caught lightning in a bottle with the hot-handed Winston on two consecutive touchdown drives, suddenly decided to get cute. On the ensuing two-point conversion that could have tied the score, he called for an awkward-looking direct snap to running back Mark Ingram and the play failed, giving the Falcons a chance to secure the victory.

The home team converted two first downs on the ensuing possession but botched a snap on third and one and the Saints got the ball back at their 20 with 48 seconds and no timeouts left.

Winston threw to Landry for 40 yards and Johnson for 17, setting up Lutz, who drilled a 51-yard field goal with 19 seconds left.

The 27-26 lead held up when Payton Turner blocked the Falcons’ desperation 63-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.

All things considered – the transition from Payton, the performances of key players coming off significant injuries, the poor play for three quarters and the remarkable series of winning plays in the final quarter – this was not only one of the most memorable opening-game wins in Saints history, it was one of their most memorable victories in franchise history.

As introductions go, the 2022 Saints came up with a doozy.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s 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. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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