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The team's owner dances on the sidelines; the fans dance Sunday nights away on Bourbon Street. The hysteria that gripped Denver in 1977 and San Francisco in '81 has hit New Orleans. With Sunday's 20-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Saints have assured themselves of finishing with a winning record for the first time in their 21-year history. But, like a traffic cop spoiling a wedding motorcade, New Orleans coach Jim Mora holds up his right hand and says stop. "We're not a playoff-caliber team until we're in the playoffs," he says. "Until you've done it, don't talk about it."
This hard-eyed assessment is echoed in the locker room. "We're not in the playoffs—we're not even a winning team yet," said Rickey Jackson, the Saints' Pro Bowl linebacker, after Sunday's game. Stares. Head scratchings. Uh, Rickey, your team is 8-3, which means you can't be any worse than 8-7 in this strike-abbreviated season. And that, you see, is a winning record. You can't miss. "I don't feel we'll have a winning season until we win one more," he said. "Otherwise we could've been 8-8."
Strange logic, until you consider the recent history of this beleaguered franchise. In 1983, Jackson's third year with New Orleans, the smart money liked the Saints as the NFC's sleeper team. They ended up 8-8, blowing four of their last six games. Last season, Jim Finks's first as general manager and Mora's first as coach, New Orleans was at last a professionally run franchise. Hopes were high when the Saints were 6-5 with five games left. Alas, they lost four of the five. And no one who endured it can forget the ignominy of that 1-15 performance in '80. Two guys, cornerback Dave Waymer and offensive tackle Stan Brock, were rookies then. They remember the Aints days, the paper bags over the fans' heads. Celebrating? Not yet.
"We're not a top-level team yet," says Mora, although the only teams with better records are the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers. "We're upper-middle. The difference between upper-middle and lower-middle is what? A bounce, a break, a penalty, a little momentum, a little confidence."
Still, New Orleans has hung some impressive skins on the wall this season. A week after giving away a game to San Francisco on Oct. 25, the Saints came back to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 38-0. That was the largest winning margin in their history. Then they crushed the Los Angeles Rams 31-14 and pulled out successive fourth-quarter, come-from-behind wins over the 49ers and the New York Giants.
After four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, a letdown seemed inevitable, but on Sunday New Orleans moved to a new level. Playing on the road once again, it won a game it should have lost, against a Steeler team with a winning record.
For most of the afternoon, few things went right for New Orleans in rain-slick Three Rivers Stadium. The Saints are a running team, but they could average only three yards a shot on the ground. Rueben Mayes, last season's Rookie of the Year, had a case of the yips and had trouble holding on to the ball. Quarterback Bobby Hebert was inconsistent, and even the field goal kicker, Morten Andersen, the man with the best percentage (.801) in NFL history, was struggling. Two long attempts, 53 and 50 yards, fell short, the occasional fate of domed-stadium kickers when they have to deal with a soggy rock.
Worst of all, the New Orleans defense seemed to go out of its way to be kind to Mark Malone, the NFL's lowest-rated quarterback. Pittsburgh's offense didn't cross midfield in the first half until just after the two-minute warning. (The Steelers were ahead 7-3, anyhow, on a 33-yard interception return by Dwayne Woodruff.) Following the warning, the Saints did a strange thing. They rolled back the clock and went into a prevent defense—rush three linemen, leave everyone else back in coverage and get eaten up slowly. And Pittsburgh did eat them up, putting together its only sustained scoring drive of the day to lead 14-3 at the half.
So you figure that New Orleans had learned its lesson. Put heat on Malone. Don't give him time to get anything going. The Saints have big league blitzers in Jackson and Pat Swilling, a surprisingly effective second-year outside linebacker. For a while New Orleans mixed things up on Malone, giving him the rush and then dropping people into coverage, and with 6:10 to go it led 20-14, following a five-yard Mayes TD carry, a 19-yard TD pass by Hebert to Eric Martin and a 32-yard kick by Andersen.
Now it was crunch time, and Pittsburgh would have one, maybe two more possessions. New Orleans went back into its prevent defense, and the Steelers put together a 61-yard drive. They had first-and-goal from the four, but the Saints stiffened, stopping Pittsburgh inches away.