Rabalais: Saints’ road trip turns from tragic to magical

TAMPA, Fla. — We’ve all had trips like the one the New Orleans Saints made here Sunday.

You know the kind: the ones where nothing seems to go right. Instead of Florida, the airline sends your luggage to Nova Scotia, your hotel reservation has evaporated and your rental car’s air conditioner has one temperature: Mojave.

It’s enough to make you vow never to step outside your home again — until that one thing makes your forget your troubles.

For the Saints, that one thing was Garrett Hartley’s game-winning 27-yard field goal try curving through the uprights as time expired, turning a lost weekend in the Liquid Sunshine state into a cardio workout of a 16-14 victory.

Everything about Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flashed big red “danger” signs for the Saints, signs that came into even sharper definition as what was an afternoon contest dragged into “Sunday Night Football” territory turn by mind-bending turn.

An early season divisional road game gave the Saints a chance to stuff the Bucs, like everyone else assumed to be a worthy NFC South contender going into the season, into one of those infamous Florida sinkholes. But getting to that point proved to be a trip filled with perils. Eventually, they were almost too much for New Orleans to overcome.

First, the weather. A hot, sunny Sunday devolved into something calling for them to raise a tropical storm warning flag on the pirate ship behind Raymond James Stadium’s north end zone shortly after Hartley drilled the game’s opening field goal with 10:30 left in the first quarter. A lightning bolt flashed out of lead gray clouds to the east, and soon a typhoon plunged the game into a 69-minute weather delay.

Dome teams are like domesticated pets. They don’t perform as well when you put them outside in adverse conditions. That was apparently one of the Saints’ offensive problems Sunday.

The humidity seemed to gum up the gears of the usually smooth-purring Saints offensive engine and turned the surgical instrument that is Drew Brees’ right hand into ham. The Hall of Fame quarterback threw two of the most dreadful-looking interceptions right to a pair of Bucs defenders, the second resulting in an 85-yard pick six for linebacker Mason Foster to give his team a 14-13 fourth-quarter lead.

Even when Brees delivered with his usual passing wizardry, things still sometimes didn’t go right for New Orleans. His 29-yard pass to Jimmy Graham was the width of a page of newsprint away from being a touchdown, but from that far away the Saints couldn’t push it in.

If great quarterbacks can have an off day, so can great play callers. Sean Payton decided to take points off the board when Hartley booted a 20-yard field goal with 20 seconds left before halftime after an offside penalty on the Bucs, then compounded his mistake by handing the ball to Mark Ingram, supposedly the Saints’ power back.

Ingram, who sometimes displays the power of a AAA battery, got stuffed for no gain at the 1. The Saints went into the locker room leading 10-7, buyer’s remorse riding on their shoulder pads.

It didn’t prove to be a fatal decision for New Orleans mostly because the Saints defense has shown itself to be plucky and resilient even in the face of increasingly daunting odds.

Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense was plagued by a wave of injuries going back to the preseason. After last Sunday’s 23-17 victory over Atlanta, the problem was everywhere else.

New Orleans had to re-sign Jay Richardson on Wednesday just to have five healthy defensive linemen available, a number reduced by one early when end Tom Johnson went down with a leg injury. Cornerback Patrick Robinson had to be carted off in the second half with a leg injury after pounding the turf in pain.

The defense played plenty good enough to win, limiting the Bucs to one offensive touchdown. And if there is one overriding positive that can be taken from this game for the Saints, it’s that if the defense can stay healthy, it looks like it will be far from a liability this season.

I certainly prefer the way the Saints play defense to the way Tampa Bay does. Greg Schiano’s Bucs play like hockey goons, headhunting their way through the game.

Three times in the second quarter Tampa Bay was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct against Brees, Graham and Darren Sproles. Even worse for New Orleans than the prospect of losing this game was the prospect of losing Brees or Graham so some other oh-so-vital offensive cog to a serious injury.

The fact that Brees didn’t get knocked out of the game came back to haunt these Tampa Bay pirates when he threw a perfect 31-yard strike to Marques Colston to set up the winning kick with no timeouts as the clock melted away.

Somehow, the Saints didn’t lose when so many things, including their own play and second-guessable decisions, conspired to produce a defeat. The Saints return to New Orleans a little soggy, maybe with a loose tooth or two, but still unbeaten.

Turns out it was a successful trip after all.