NEW ORLEANS - If the Patriots are an elite NFL team, one capable of challenging for the Super Bowl, the evidence will have to arrive in the next month. As of this morning, there is none. They have yet to win at an opponent’s home stadium, yet to beat a team that would qualify for the playoffs if they began today, and yet to prove their defense is something more than papier-mache when truly tested.
The Patriots received their opportunity to change all of that last night, and instead the New Orleans Saints, with an overwhelming 38-17 victory, used the occasion to remind the Patriots of what they once were. The only juggernaut inside the Louisiana Superdome, the only team that can claim to be championship-caliber, wore black and gold.
"They were obviously the better team tonight," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It wasn’t a competitive game like we thought it would be or like we needed it to be. We’ve got to coach better and play better. We have to do a lot better to compete with a team of this caliber."
The Saints stand five games away from wiping out the once-unthinkable offensive standard the Patriots set in 2007 and joining them as the only teams to finish 16-0 in the regular season. Last night, they shredded and exposed the Patriots defense for 480 total yards, "which was pretty ridiculous," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
It was the third-most the Patriots have yielded under Belichick and the highest total since 2001. The Saints receivers romped through the secondary and their backs sliced through the line while the Patriots missed tackle after tackle.
Brees threw five touchdown passes and passed for 371 yards, completing 18 of 23 attempts. He compiled a 158.3 quarterback rating, the highest the system allows. Every time he missed a pass, he grimaced and shook his fist as if he couldn’t believe what had happened.
The Saints defense, playing with a patchwork secondary because of injuries, held Tom Brady without a touchdown pass and frustrated Randy Moss, who made one explosive play but finished with three catches. By game’s end, he stood alone on the sideline, helmet in his right hand.
The Saints attacked the Patriots defense in every manner. They scored on long drives. They scored on a 75-yard strike. They scored on screen passes, on long post patterns, on a dump to their third tight end. They emptied both barrels.
With less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots took over on their 25-yard line and waved the white flag. Belichick inserted backup quarterback Brian Hoyer and ran the ball up the middle twice, letting the clock bleed.
The Superdome, packed with 70,768 swaggering Cajuns who chanted "Who dat?" all night, shook from opening kick to final whistle. The Saints borrow their strategy from an avalanche, relentlessly building on their momentum until they can’t be stopped. The Saints made clear they occupy a different place on the NFL’s hierarchy than the Patriots.
"We have to play situational football better against top teams," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Up until this point, the defense hasn’t done it. So hopefully we’re going to get that fixed in these next five weeks.
"When it’s crunch time, we have to make plays. We didn’t do that. We came in at halftime ready to go. As a defense, we haven’t played well coming out of halftime yet."
At the outset of the third quarter, the Patriots actually hinted they would make the showdown, hyped endlessly this week, a competitive exercise. Laurence Maroney plunged in for a 2-yard touchdown, cutting the Saints lead to 24-17. The dome almost hushed.
And then Brees took the field. He buzzed a deep slant to Marques Colston, who hopped around Jonathan Wilhite and Brandon Meriweather and ran for a 68-yard gain. Two plays later, Brees bypassed his more well-known weaponry and hit Darnell Dinkins for a 2-yard touchdown pass. The Patriots did not score again, and the Saints did not look back.
"We definitely thought we were still going to be able to win the game coming out of halftime," cornerback Leigh Bodden said. "The defense just didn’t do their part tonight. Against an offense like that, you can’t have a bad game. They’ll just run up the score on you."
The Patriots offense opened the game by stashing their air-it-out offense and, instead, chose to bludgeon the Saints. They went for it on fourth and 1 twice with straight-ahead power runs. Sammy Morris picked up the first, and Maroney plowed in for a touchdown from 4 yards for the second.
The Patriots took a 7-3 lead, but then the Saints wrested control in their unrelenting style. They took the lead when Pierre Thomas broke a tackle by Derrick Burgess, then spun and twisted into the end zone on an 18-yard screen pass.
The Saints then began to transform the game into a blowout. On the first play of a drive midway through the second quarter, Brees dropped back. Wilhite screamed in from the left corner on a blitz.
In the secondary, Meriweather was charged with covering Devery Henderson. He drifted toward the other side of the field as if he forgot about Wilhite’s blitz. Brees rifled a pass to Henderson, no defender within 25 yards. He cruised for a 75-yard touchdown.
"We obviously blew it," Belichick said. "They took advantage of enormous mistakes."
For their third touchdown of the first half, the Saints breezed down the field with alarming efficiency. Three quick gains for a first down. A 25-yard catch by David Thomas, the former Patriots tight end. And then Brees flicked a 38-yard pass to the middle of the end zone to Robert Meachem, one step ahead of Wilhite.
The drive made one wonder which team was playing without its starting cornerbacks and a veteran fresh off the street. That would be the Saints, starting Randall Gay and Malcolm Jenkins at the corners and using Mike McKenzie, 33 years old and nine days removed from unemployment, in their nickel.
McKenzie played like a man imbued with a second chance. He cut under Randy Moss on the first play of the Patriots’ second drive and, as Brady threw on the run, intercepted the ball. Somehow, the rest of their motley secondary kept the other Patriots receivers contained until the New England offense, down by three touchdowns, gave up.
"We still have to win games," Bodden said. "If we’re a Super Bowl-caliber team, then we’ll be where we need to be and hopefully we’ll face them again. We’re a good team. We just didn’t show it tonight."
Will they show it this season? The Patriots will know only after a process that, for this morning, brings with it little reason for optimism. "Wait and see," Meriweather said. And then he walked out of the visitor’s locker room.