OAKLAND, Calif. — In need of one more victory to push their record to .500 for the first time this season, the New Orleans Saints heeded the warnings of interim coach Joe Vitt this week.
Throughout the week of preparation, Vitt reminded the Saints that they would be facing an Oakland Raiders’ team that defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers and nearly upset the Atlanta Falcons on the road earlier in the season.
Vitt also knew the Saints, who were only 1-3 away from home this season, were going to be traveling across the country to play the banged-up Raiders.
But the Saints came out Sunday with two touchdowns in the first 11 minutes — one on offense and one on defense — and kept the pedal down throughout the day in a 38-17 rout of the Raiders.
After starting the season 0-4, the Saints finally climbed out of the hole with their third straight victory and fifth win in six games to even their record at 5-5 heading into a rugged three-game stretch that includes games with the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants.
“I said it last week and I’ll say it again,” Vitt said. “It’s a tribute to those players in the locker room that at 0-4 they stuck together, worked hard every day, never pointed fingers and just continued to try to get better every single day. And it’s paying dividends now.”
It wasn’t all good as far as Vitt was concerned, however, after the Saints committed 11 penalties for 109 yards — both season-highs. Included was a taunting penalty on running back Mark Ingram, who pointed to a Raiders’ defender at the end of a 27-yard TD run.
“We got the taunting (call), and the needless penalties are something that we’re going to have to correct and correct quickly,” Vitt said.
Still, there was plenty to be pleased about for the long flight home.
Drew Brees threw for 219 yards and three TDs — two to wide receiver Lance Moore — and free safety Malcolm Jenkins returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown.
The Saints also rushed for 153 yards, their second-highest total of the season. It marked the third consecutive game that the Saints, who just a couple of weeks ago ranked last in the league, reached triple digits after doing it once in their first seven games.
“It’s been a journey. … It’s been an uphill battle to be .500,” said tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught a 1-yard pass from Brees for the Saints’ first TD. “I never thought I would be so happy to be .500 in my entire career. We’re excited because things are moving the right way for us.”
The offense and defense worked together to get off to a 14-0 lead in the first 11 minutes with the defense forcing the Raiders (3-7) to punt on their first two possessions — including a three-and-out on the second series.
In between, Brees and the offense had a solid start.
He led a 10-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by the 1-yard TD to a wide-open Graham after the Saints gashed the Raiders’ defense for gains of 14, 16 and 14 yards on their first three snaps.
The second and third plays set the tone when Ingram and Pierre Thomas combined for 30 rushing yards to set up the passing game.
Brees, who hit on 20 of 27 passes for 219 yards with three TDs and no interceptions and had a passer rating of 134.6, was 5-of-6 on the drive.
After forcing the two punts on the Raiders’ first two series, the Saints’ defense scored a touchdown of its own when Jenkins jumped in front on a Carson Palmer pass for tight end Brandon Myers and took it back 55 yards.
“There was a little bit of a miscommunication between Brandon and I, and that’s something that can’t happen,” said Palmer, who was 22-of-40 for 312 yards. “He did a good job of jumping inside on the route and I should have done a better job of placing the ball. He (Jenkins) made a good play, but obviously, that’s one that I’d like to have back.”
It was the first interception for Jenkins since he had two in a Dec. 12, 2010 game with the St. Louis Rams, returning one for a 96-yard TD.
The Saints’ 32nd-ranked defense actually came up with interceptions on back-to-back possessions by the Raiders.
Strong safety Roman Harper also came up with one that glanced off Myers’ shoulder in the end zone. That ended a scoring threat even though the Raiders ran eight plays in the Saints’ red zone.
The Saints put the game away with two touchdowns — one to end the first half and one to start the second half, which pushed their lead to 28-7 less than a minute into the third period.
Brees ended a 90-yard drive with a 38-yard TD pass to Moore, who easily got behind cornerback Michael Huff with 48 seconds left until halftime.
Then, rookie running back Travaris Cadet, who was filling in as a return man because Darren Sproles had some swelling in his surgically-repaired left hand, started the second half with a 75-yard kickoff return.
On the first play from scrimmage, Ingram, who rushed for 67 yards for the second straight week, bounced outside and went in untouched from 27 yards out for a three-touchdown lead with 14:43 left in the third.
The only thing Ingram did wrong was point back at Raiders free safety Matt Giordano — which drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
From there, the Saints cruised as Brees threw a 15-yard TD to Moore after the Raiders’ Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 40-yard field goal and Garrett Hartley nailed a 47-yard field goal for the Saints.
After that, the only question was whether the Saints’ defense would hold an opponent to fewer than 400 yards for the first time this season.
The Raiders spoiled that with a 93-yard drive and Palmer’s 3-yard TD pass to Juron Kriner, giving them 404 total yards.
“We’re on our way,” Brees said. “Had you told us or anybody after 0-4 that we would be looking at 5-5 at some point, a lot of people might have said that was unrealistic. But here we are.”
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