Brees tosses 2 TDs as Saints stop Jets to stay in first place
NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints entered Sunday’s game against the undermanned New York Jets as 16-point favorites — the largest margin in their 51-year history — so their 31-19 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome wasn’t as much of a surprise as it was a 60-minute grind.
The Saints at times looked disinterested and disoriented — committing three turnovers and eight penalties for 92 yards and converting just 3 of 10 third downs — but they did just enough to get to 10-4 on the season to set them up squarely for the final two weeks of the season in what coach Sean Payton is calling a “round robin tournament” for the NFC South title.
The victory kept the Saints in first place in the NFC South. Even though they are tied with Carolina (10-4), the Saints swept the Panthers in two games this season and own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Saints will close out the season by hosting Atlanta (8-5) next Sunday and finish in Tampa Bay on Dec. 31.
“We’re in a round-robin tournament here, and everyone’s playing everyone, whether it’s Carolina, Atlanta or Tampa Bay,” Payton said. “We’ve just got to focus on the game we’re playing. I know that sounds a little cliche, but, honestly, it’s the truth. ... We looked a little sloppy, and we’ll get that corrected. We have to.”
Quarterback Drew Brees threw two touchdown passes, including a 4-yard slant to Michael Thomas with 7:39 left, and Mark Ingram II broke through an 11-man front for the clinching touchdown with 1:33 left to ice the victory.
The Jets (5-9) kept the game close with their defensive pressure and ability to stuff the run into the fourth quarter, but they could not generate enough offense behind quarterback Bryce Petty, a third-year player making his fifth NFL start for injured starter Josh McCown.
Brees completed 26 of 36 passes for 285 yards, and nine of the completions, for 93 yards, went to Thomas, a second-year receiver who has caught at least 90 passes in his first two NFL seasons.
After wide receiver Brandon Coleman fumbled the ball away on consecutive drives in the second half, killing Saints’ scoring opportunities, Brees targeted Thomas four times for 50 yards on the decisive, 64-yard touchdown drive that put the Saints up 24-13.
Thomas made a critical, 17-yard catch on a third-down crossing route to keep that drive alive and then climbed the ladder on the next play to outjump Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams for a 20-yard completion on a back-shoulder throw from Brees, setting up the Saints at the Jets’ 24-yard line.
Thomas got the touchdown by running a slant from the New York 4 and easily beating cornerback Morris Claiborne to the inside.
“He was superb,” Brees said of Thomas. “He had a big third-down conversion and then he went up and made a great catch. It was just a tough, physical play on his part. Really, on that entire drive, you could just see it in his eyes. He wanted the ball and he wanted to make the plays.”
Petty finished 19 of 39 for 179 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown — a 2-yard pass to running back Elijah McGuire with 1:51 left, which drew the Jets within 24-19. The Jets went for two hoping to make it a field goal game, but defensive end Cam Jordan batted away Petty’s pass. Jordan, who is having a monster season, deflected five passes during the game.
“It was like Dikembe Mutombo or something, playing D-end,” Brees said of Jordan. “It was pretty awesome. Listen, those are game-changers. No bigger one than the two-point conversion.”
The Saints recovered the onside kick and Ingram ran 50 yards for a late score with 1:33 left to ice the game. The Jets had held the Saints’ running game in check until that point, limiting Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara to 3.0 yards a carry.
The Jets, who dropped to 1-6 on the road, chipped away at a 17-10 second-half deficit by driving 58 yards in nine plays for a 26-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro, making it 17-13 midway through the third quarter.
The Saints wasted two excellent chances to take command of the game after that, but two drives deep in Jets territory ended with fumbles by Coleman. The first came on a hit by Jets safety Jamal Adams at the New York 17, and the second on a strip by cornerback Buster Skrine at the Jets 23.
The Jets, however, failed to convert either takeaway into scores. Still, coach Todd Bowles was proud of his team’s effort after falling behind 17-7 after the Saints scored on their first three possessions.
“They fought, the entire team fought,” Bowles said. “They made more plays than we did. They’re going to keep fighting, obviously. This is going to turn (around), I believe. This is a good core group. We’ve just got to eliminate some of the mistakes.”
Bowles said he wasn’t disappointed with Petty’s performance. Petty will start next week against the Chargers.
“It’s his first game (of the season),” Bowles said. “Number one, he plays with confidence. He’s going to see some things (defensively). It’s a faster pace down here, a tough environment. He handled himself well. Obviously, we don’t want the turnovers, that’s No. 1. He’ll be more accurate as we go.”
NOTES: The Saints lost TE Michael Hoomanawanui and RG Larry Warford to concussions in the first half. ... Jets DE Leonard Williams also suffered a concussion. ... The Saints gambled on fourth-and-2 from the Jets 7 in the first half, and QB Drew Brees made it pay off with a 6-yard bubble screen to Michael Thomas. RB Mark Ingram II scored on the next play. ... Brees had success throwing to his backs, completing 11 passes for 122 yards to Ingram and Alvin Kamara.