Note: I was in Chicago for a friend's birthday and to watch the Redskins beat the Chicago Bears so I was unable to see the Saints' disaster in the Dome yesterday. Clay Smith, though, was and here is his report from that game:
The Saints may have taken their home field as reigning Super Bowl Champs Sunday, but the visiting Browns brought along their own big game magic in LB Scott Fujita-the patron Saint of yesteryear. For the second time in three weeks, New Orleans has been on the head-scratching end of an inter-conference upset (30-17), thanks in part to eleven tackles, one sack, and one interception from the former Saints stand-out.
Fujita’s return to the Superdome was supposed to be a heart-warming sub-plot to a story ending in the Saints’ fifth win of the season. Instead, the New Orleans faithful were left wondering how the league’s 23rd ranked defense managed to keep its 8th ranked offense out of the end zone for three consecutive quarters.
The numbers don’t add up. New Orleans passed for 336 yards and held Cleveland to just 210 total. Rookie signal caller Colt McCoy posted a 68.2 quarterback rating with a pedestrian 74 yard performance, and the Browns offense only accounted for 16 of the team‘s 30 points. So how does a 1-5 team usurp the NFL’s best? Coaching.
The Saints were Mangini-ed. Brown’s head coach Eric Mangini, the former Bill Belichick disciple lovingly referred to as Man-genius, threw every page of the Browns’ playbook at New Orleans. Whenever it seemed as if the Saints were making a run, Mangini was making a gutsy call: first on a 62 yard punt return from Eric Wright via a Josh Cribbs lateral (setting up a Phil Dawson field goal), then on a 68 yard fake punt by punter Reggie Hodges with 4:30 left in the first half, and again to close the door on any realistic chance of a Saints comeback with a 13 yard pass from running back Peyton Hillis to McCoy.
But it wasn’t all Mangini. The Saints played their role in this comedy of errors. Perhaps channeling their inner Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans - despite filling up the stat sheet - has been violating two cardinal rules of Championship football as of late: don't commit turnovers or boneheaded penalties.
Quarterback Drew Brees (sacked three times Sunday) threw four interceptions, two to twelve year veteran David Bowens who returned both for touchdowns. Guard Carl Nicks incurred 25 yards worth of penalties on one play, just as the offense seemed to have gotten their act together. Second year safety Malcolm Jenkins’ 38-yard pass interference penalty set up a four-yard touchdown run by Hillis. Jahri Evans’ illegal hands to the face penalty wiped out a 20 yard touchdown pass from Brees to Lance Moore and on a critical third and five, Jenkins’ illegal hands to the face negated what could have been a momentum swinging stop for the Black and Gold.
"I think we are all doing a little soul searching,’ said Brees after the game. ”We know how good we can be. Obviously, we aren't playing that way right now."
As it stands, the Saints are approaching mid-season 4-3 and third in the NFC south behind Tampa Bay. With the Falcons looking like the league’s breakout team, Brees and the gang had better speed up the soul search, or they could find themselves searching for tickets to Super Bowl XLV.