Two years ago, when the Saints and Patriots met, it was the Patriots who were perfect. This time, the quarterback touching lofty new heights of perfection was wearing black and gold.
If you're a Patriots fan, though, this game was ugly and excruciating.
It began competitively enough, with the Patriots ahead 7-3 midway through the first quarter, following a beautiful line surge with a two-back set that left the New Orleans defense grasping at air as Laurence Maroney scooted past them, between Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur on the right side of the line and into the end zone. Then, the Patriots defense forced a Saints punt, and Wes Welker slipped away from at least two tackles on his way across midfield to begin another drive deep in Saints territory.
Around my office today, I'd been engaged in the usual pregame banter and predictions, and I had to be honest: I wasn't expecting the Patriots to come out on top in this game. Where they'd barely been edged by Indianapolis, the Saints seemed like an even more formidable foe, especially with Fantasy Football stud Drew Brees at the helm. But by the time Tom Brady stepped to the line after that Welker runback, I was beginning to think, O me of little faith.
And that's about when Brady, flushed out of the pocket and scrambling, spotted Moss down-field and heaved the ball hopefully in his direction, only to have the route jumped by Mike McKenzie for an interception.
That was bad enough, but on the Saints' next possession, Brees completed a swing pass to runningback Pierre Thomas on a 4th and 1. The primary Patriots defender, Derrick Burgess, dove at Thomas's feet and missed. Adalius Thomas seemed to leave another engagement along the right sideline too slowly as the runningback swerved upfield, and also missed. By the time Vince Wilfork made a desperate effort to catch Thomas coming from midfield, he had no chance; Thomas also passed an apathetic Jonathan Wilhite on his way into the end zone.
In various midgame analyses, that interception and ensuing score were emphasized as the turning point of the game. Much was made of Brady's miscues and the absence of Sebastian Vollmer (as well as the side drama of Belichick's particularly acerbic responses to questions about Vollmer's condition). A collapsing pocket and deceptive looks from the New Orleans defense were giving the Patriots offense fits, of that there is no doubt.
But I was more upset about the defense. If the offense this year has been mediocre, the defense, at times like tonight, has been terrible. With about ten minutes remaining in the first half, Brees faked as if he was going to make another short pass to Thomas, bringing Brandon Meriweather up while Devery Henderson ran behind him (Wilhite had let him go). Then Brees turned and fired downfield, completing a deep pass to Henderson that laid bare, once and for all, just how bad the Patriots defense can look. The offense wasn't exactly piling up points, but that coverage was FUBAR.
If I had to pick one especially bad performance among a Patriots secondary that all shared a really bad night tonight, it would be Wilhite's. He was lifted for a while in favor of Darius Butler after stumbling, staggering and getting burned for another touchdown in the third quarter; his back was literally to the ball and his man when the pass came in. Pathetic.
As the second half opened, there was still hope, especially after the Patriots offense clawed back within a score at 24-17, featuring a long completion (finally!) between Brady and Randy Moss and another Maroney run into the end zone. That is, until the Patriots secondary once again was left with their pants around their ankles on the next New Orleans possession, and the game began to slip away, 31-17.
There was one last gasp for New England as they drove down the field in the third quarter, ultimately facing a fourth down and four deep in New Orleans territory, but an attempt to get the first down with a pass to Moss was once again thwarted by McKenzie, who played a superior game tonight. Another quick slice and dice of the Patriots secondary by Brees, and the game was well out of reach, 38-17.
I had thought it might be bad, but I still didn't know quite how bad it would feel, especially watching Brady actually sidelined by the end of the game, standing grim-faced with Bill Belichick on the sideline as the final minutes played out.
Worse, all of the above only served to underscore themes that have already become all too familiar this season--this was no one-off fluke. "This whole game," tweeted Joe Haggerty of Hacks with Haggs, "is Exhibit A in the case of Bill Belichick vs the people of New England on 4th and 2."
We're at the point in the season when team identities are starting to form, and while the Saints are looking downright magical, the Patriots seem to be establishing themselves in the middle of the pack -- over .500 and capable of beating up on bad teams, but not flying among the class of the league this year. There will be no Comeback Player of the Year Award for Brady, as New England fans may have fantasized before the season began. And it's even beginning to feel like the zeitgest of the league has begun moving away from us, to the west, and south.