CHICAGO — In their past three visits to Soldier Field, the New Orleans Saints played more like zombies than football players.
It’s hard to believe that the stadium that sits just a few hundred yards away from the scenic shoreline of Lake Michigan could be the House of Horrors it became when they lost to the Chicago Bears three times — in the 2006 NFC Championship game and the next two seasons when they were eliminated from playoff contention.
They turned the ball over a total of nine times, which was tough enough to take, but they also had to endure the barbs and insults hurled their way from rough-and-tumble Bears fans in the stands.
But something was remarkably different Sunday. The undefeated Saints marched into Soldier Field on Sunday with a lot of confidence and all the motivation they needed from coach Sean Payton, then walked out with a 26-18 victory on a gorgeous fall afternoon.
Perhaps that had something to do with their play. In the three earlier losses here, they had to brave bitter cold and windy conditions while trying to find a way to defeat the Bears.
No one had to tell the six Saints who were involved in all three of those games what the story line was heading into Sunday’s game. By the time they kicked off, it was ingrained in their minds.
The key this time was they weren’t obsessed with previous failures against the Bears.
“The story is we were 0-3 here, but it’s a win and we’re excited about it being a win,” said tackle Zach Strief, one of the team’s offensive captains. “We didn’t feel like there is a terrible demon that has plagued us for years (here). The bottom line is we took care of the ball, and that’s what we haven’t done here in the past.”
“We did turn it over a lot when we’ve played here,” guard Jahri Evans said. “But … games like that happen. The Bears were good back then; we just had their number this time.”
True and true. The Saints were turnover-free Sunday against a Bears defense that led the NFL a year ago with 44 takeaways and was already atop the league this season with 14 in the first four games.
“We talked about that all week,” Strief said. “We needed to win the turnover (battle). We had never done that here, and it was reflected in our record. We took care of the ball and the defense took one away for us, so we’re happy to get out with a win.”
Strief also noted how this Saints team is 1-0 against the Bears, not 1-3.
“It’s hard to say it’s the same deal,” he said. “Coach Payton was here (in 2006) and so was Drew (Brees). But this is a different team this year, and we’re happy to get win number five.”
Still, Brees said later, it was sweet to walk away with a win for a change.
“It’s about time,” he said after throwing for 288 yards and two touchdowns. “We’ve come up here quite a few times for big games, and unfortunately we were never able to walk away with a victory. We’ve been waiting for that opportunity to come back.”
Like Strief and Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston was on the losing end of those three games against the Bears. But while they talked about the key to the game and playing better Sunday, they didn’t make it a bigger issue than it was.
“You never want to talk about the past, whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “Each season presents its own challenges — just like every week. We had a plan put together coming into this game, and we were able to execute it and get a win.”
In order to do that, Strief said, the message from Payton this week was simple, and a number of players repeated it in the winning locker room:
“If you want to do something you’ve never been able to do before, you have to do something you’ve never done before.”
“I don’t think we’re celebrating our tremendous achievement,” Strief said. “We’re just excited as we are every week after a win — especially on the road.”
Especially, he should have said, in the House of Horrors.