Often in the NFL, a moment is just a moment and nothing more, devoid of larger meaning. One week a team ascends, the next week it crashes. Ask Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, ask the 49ers—the flavors of the month in September. Ask the Cardinals, left for dead after Week 3 and now reborn. It is ever perilous to presume that trophies won in October will hold their value longer than seven days. And yet sometimes the temptation is irresistible. Sometimes 18 inches of turf seem to stretch from here to February.
Late on Sunday afternoon, in sweltering Land Shark Stadium north of Miami, the unbeaten Saints were punished for nearly a half. The Dolphins hammered away with their 1930s-vintage Wildcat offense and assaulted quarterback Drew Brees with a bewildering array of blitzes, sacking him three times and forcing two interceptions. (Another would come later.) Miami led 24--3 inside the two-minute warning. The building shook. Jason Taylor and Joey Porter looked young again, rushing off the edge. Don Shula was caught smiling on camera. New Orleans, a team that had not trailed in its first five games and had hardly been tested, was exposed.
"You're down 21 points in a place like Miami, where theoretically you'll be worn down by the conditions [89º at kickoff] and with the style of offense they run," Brees would say later. "They're going to pound the ball and run the clock, and we might not get many opportunities. It would be pretty easy at that point to just pack it in."
But then: a Dolphins fumble. Seven plays, the last an apparent 21-yard touchdown from Brees to Marques Colston. The TD call challenged from the official's booth. A heated discussion on the Saints' sideline, Brees in coach Sean Payton's grill, pushing to go for six if the touchdown was reversed (it was), the quarterback—who, after all, played at Purdue in the heart of Hoosiers country—going all Jimmy Chitwood on his coach. "I'll get it," Brees said, locking eyes with Payton, taking a few extra moments to plead during a timeout called by Dolphins coach Tony Sparano (bad idea) after Payton had already sent out his field goal unit.
The Saints' linemen waited on the field. "Everybody out there wanted to take that shot," right tackle Jon Stinchcomb recalls. "Not a lot to lose at that point."
Payton relented. Brees ran back to the huddle. "O.K.," he told his teammates. "Dig down. Get low. I'm going over the top. We're scoring. We have to."
At the snap Brees lunged forward and pushed the ball beyond the plane of the goal before getting drilled backward by linebacker Channing Crowder. The quarterback extricated himself from the pile and spiked the ball violently at the back of the end zone, an act that seemed more defiant than celebratory.
"A little venting for Drew there," said New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "It was an emotional charge. I loved it. We all loved it."
The Saints ran from the field infused with new life and a realistic shot at winning the game. Maybe it is their year after all, and maybe that is no accident.
Three days earlier in suburban Metarie, La. Saints practice, which had been moved to a cavernous indoor facility because of thunderstorms rolling out of Texas, is finished for the afternoon. Players shuffle out and follow a covered concrete walkway to their locker room in an adjacent building. Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams conduct short press briefings at the side of the field, and soon the place is empty except for Brees and his wide receivers, who are endlessly working through pass routes.