Saints fans showed up to the Superdome dressed as referees. Blind referees, to be specific. The last game that happened in New Orleans, the NFC championship game, is best remembered for the missed pass-interference call that led to a citywide meltdown and the league’s mea culpa of making pass interference reviewable. But while fans and the media latched onto that play, the fact that the Saints had a chance to win the game in overtime before a Drew Brees interception got lost in the subsequent discussion.
On Monday night against the Texans, the Saints nearly lost again because of a penalty, and unlike that NFC championship game it was a good call. New Orleans overcame a 14-3 first-half deficit to storm back and take a 27-21 lead with less than a minute remaining. But Houston responded with a lightning-quick, two-play, 75-yard drive that took just 13 seconds and was capped by a 37-yard pass to new arrival Kenny Stills.
The touchdown tied the game at 27, and all the Texans needed to do to take the lead was kick the extra point. But Ka’imi Fairbairn missed, keeping the game tied and setting up yet another overtime in the Superdome. But then—unlike the NFC championship game—a flag came in (and this one was not a trick of the light from the broadcast). Also unlike the NFC championship game, the refs were right. The Saints were guilty of roughing the kicker, and the Texans were given another chance, which Fairbairn hit to give his team a 28-27 lead.
Brees got the ball back with 37 seconds left and was surgical on the ensuing drive. Ted Ginn for 15 yards to the New Orleans 40. Spike. Michael Thomas for 11 yards into Texans territory. Spike. Then, with six seconds left, Brees found Ginn for 9 yards to put the Saints at the Houston 40.
Rush two, drop nine, WTH O’Brien?!— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 10, 2019
There are six seconds left & these guys are backpedaling like Brees is gonna actually reach the end zone on a Hail Mary to end the game. pic.twitter.com/kD8VhGS9s4
New Orleans called a timeout with two seconds left to set up a Wil Lutz 58-yard field goal attempt. Lutz’s career long was 57 yards. He nailed the kick, which looked like it would’ve been good from 60.
As cathartic as the win was for New Orleans, it was crushing for Houston—especially their quarterback. Nine days ago, the Texans mortgaged their future to protect Deshaun Watson by sending their next two first-round picks to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. It didn’t work. Watson was sacked six times on Monday, the most in the league through Week 1. The sixth sack was given up by Tunsil. It doesn’t get more facepalm than that. Watson was brilliant on Monday, throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns and one interception. But the repeated sacks showed that the team can’t protect him. On Monday the juxtaposition between his talents and the team’s failure to keep him upright was never clearer than on his final throw of the game, when he threw the game-tying touchdown to Stills, the other part of the Miami trade, as the quarterback was crushed by Saints safety Vonn Bell, who came around Tunsil’s side of the line unblocked. The Miami trade giveth, the Miami trade taketh away (and taketh away, and taketh away).
Protecting their franchise quarterback isn’t just the Texans’ biggest problem. It was also their first problem. Their first franchise quarterback, David Carr, was protected by an expansion-caliber offensive line that was overwhelmed at the pro level back in their inaugural 2002 season. Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times in his rookie year and then sacked 68 times in his fourth year, good for the third-most sacks in a season. He led the league in sacks in three of his first four years; the lone exception was when he missed time due to injury. Carr’s career was suffocated underneath the deluge of defenders, and he left Houston after five seasons, making just four starts for the rest of his career.
Despite attempts to improve the offensive line this offseason—in addition to the Tunsil trade, the Texans drafted two linemen in the first two rounds in April—2019 already looks similar to last year, when Watson was sacked 62 times (the ninth NFL player to be sacked 60 or more times). With Watson taking six sacks in Week 1, he is on pace for 96 this year. It doesn’t help that Watson isn’t the best at protecting himself, whether he’s in the pocket for sacks or laying out for touchdowns. But forcing Watson to put himself on the line is how Houston plays, for better and worse.
While the Texans offense forced fans to hold their breath on every Watson dropback, the Saints offense was taking their fans’ breath away. Running back Alvin Kamara had a mini–Marshawn Lynch Beastquake in the second half.
Quarterback Taysom Hill, Drew Brees’s stunt double, leveled Houston’s Whitney Mercilus on a cut block …
I love Taysom Hill and I don't care what it says about me.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 9, 2019
Here's his backup QB decking Mercilus on his block pic.twitter.com/XjDj8RJelZ
… crumpled a cornerback on a read-option …
... and then caught the touchdown that cut the Texans’ lead to 21-17.
Hill may already be the most fun player in the league. But it was New Orleans’s other quarterback who was vindicated on Monday. In January, Brees had the chance to overcome a bad call and faltered. On Monday he overcame a good call with an impeccable performance. Perhaps it was enough to inspire Saints fans to wear Saints gear instead of referee uniforms. Or maybe not. Next week the Saints travel to Los Angeles to play the Rams.