NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints are 3-1, and a field goal away from being 4-0. There's no denying that. The Saints are 3-1, and it wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility that the Saints could have started this season 0-4. Look at it with a level head and you could easily make a case for that scenario.
So there's cause for confusion. The reigning Super Bowl champs made that very clear on Sunday when the Saints skated by the Carolina Panthers 16-14 on Sunday in the Superdome relying on the leg of 46-year-old kicker John Carney to make three field goals, including the winner late in the fourth quarter. The Saints needed every last point to hang on.
The Saints have beaten the Vikings, 49ers and Panthers -- who have a combined record of 1-10 -- by only a combined total of 10 points. During the past postseason, they beat the Colts, Vikings and Cardinals by a combined 48 points.
Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis sounded like a guy who didn't want to kid himself into being OK with being 3-1 with the way the Saints have done through the first month of the 2010 season. Ellis on the glass being half full or half empty being 3-1: "You look at both. You can look at it either way. You're 3-1, but you're not playing your best football. But then you look at it and we're not playing our best football, but we're 3-1."
It's becoming routine this season for Brees to rattle off a series of plays where he felt the offense should have scored during his postgame press conferences.
"[Sunday] should have been a 30-point game," Brees said Sunday. "You look at it, we scored 16 points. We had a chance to score a touchdown in the end and make it less interesting and we didn't, so that's 20 points. We had a fumble on the 1-yard line, and that's 27 points. We fumble going into the red zone."
While it was kind of cute and funny last year to hear how many scoring chances the Saints missed while pummeling teams with a sledgehammer, it's now a troubling trend the Saints need to fix to simply give themselves a crack at winning the division, let alone making a postseason run.
"We definitely have the killer instinct, but we're making some pretty stupid mistakes," Brees said. "Just doing all the things we tell ourselves not to do -- turn the ball over, execution-type things, mental errors. ... We're going to save all the scoring to the end of the season, I guess."
Brees did his best to control the spin.
"It's frustrating, but I'm happy we got the 'W.' There's one thing and that we're battle tested. We know how to win games. We know how to win tight games; games that go down to the fourth quarter. You anticipate those and you're ready for them. Now, we can still improve in the fourth quarter. ... Overall, you just want a chance and you find a way. And we did."
|In the end, Saints coach Sean Payton gets a congratulatory hug, and more questions. (AP)|
• Brees wasn't too hampered by his slightly sprained MCL in his left knee, but there's no doubt the Panthers targeted his braced leg.
• The three running backs who would have lined the depth chart (Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Lynell Hamilton, who's out for the year) were all out. The Saints relied on veteran Ladell Betts, who was signed last week, and undrafted rookie Chris Ivory, who missed the first two weeks with a knee injury. All Ivory and Betts did was give the Saints their most productive rushing output of the season.
• With starting strong safety Roman Harper inactive on Sunday, the Saints lost their second- and third-stringers as Pierson Prioleau and Chris Reis both left the game with injuries. Usama Young came in to fill a role he's not all that familiar with and made the most clutch play of the game by halting Carolina's DeAngelo Williams for a 4-yard loss with 1:35 left in the game to seriously hinder the Panthers' final drive.
• Playoff hero Garrett Hartley is mentally battered and bruised as he sat on the sideline and watched a guy who's almost longer in the league than Hartley has been alive win the game for the Saints. But Saints coach Sean Payton verified the all-important and clichéd fact.
"We made just enough plays to get the win," Payton said. "That's what is most important."
The Panthers might learn how to win next season once John Fox is long gone; the Panthers are 0-4 for the first time since 1998. Carolina's Steve Smith found the silver lining in all of it for the Panthers: "I mean we scored more than seven points [Sunday], so that's an improvement from other games."
So while it's not Panthers-bad for the Saints after the first quarter of the season, it's not Saints-good. And other teams are catching on.