Mickles: Saints’ Super credentials were forged in comeback win over Dolphins

In the ever-changing NFL, four years is an eternity.

Coaches and players alike come and go at an alarming rate — especially players.

Only 12 players on the New Orleans Saints’ 53-man active roster were around back in 2009, which was the last time they met the Miami Dolphins in a meaningful game.

But those who were there that late October day in what was then known as Landshark Stadium were reminded this week just how meaningful it was as they prepared for Monday night’s game with the Dolphins.

Brandishing a 5-0 record for only the third time in club history, the Saints embarked on what they hoped would be the first of two road trips to South Florida in 31/2 months.

Their plans for a sixth victory quickly went farther south when the Dolphins bolted to a 24-3 lead just 21 minutes into the game and looked more like a 5-0 team than the high-flying Saints, who hadn’t trailed in their first five games.

But then came the rally that matched the biggest comeback in franchise history. The Saints piled up 43 points in the final 2 seconds of the first half and entire second half, outscoring the shell-shocked Dolphins 43-10 to win 46-34.

The game branded the Saints, who had experienced back-to-back 7-9 and 8-8 seasons, as bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

Actually, the Dolphins’ home stadium was the perfect time and place for coach Sean Payton, master motivator, to plant the seeds for his team’s victory in Super Bowl XLIV in the same stadium just 105 days later. But it didn’t look good early.

“I remember Sean saying after the game, ‘Hey, remember this feeling, guys, because this is the feeling we want when we come back here to win the Super Bowl,’ ” quarterback Drew Brees recalled Thursday. “Ironically, that’s exactly what happened. There are great memories from that game — just that moment and being in that stadium and obviously having the chance to go there again a few months later.”

The Saints fed off that victory and went on to add seven more for a club-record 13 wins in a row before the streak finally was snapped by the Dallas Cowboys in mid-December.

The comeback matched the 24-3, second-quarter deficit the Saints came back from in a 1987 game against the Cincinnati Bengals that kept a lengthy winning streak alive en route to their first winning season and playoff berth.

“We got down early, but we just knew if we kept playing, we had a chance,” All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. “A lot of times, the momentum can flow back and forth. So we kept playing.”

It would have been easy to fold, or at least wilt in the 89-degree heat after former Saints running back Ricky Williams ripped off two touchdown runs — including a 68-yarder — and Ronnie Brown added another. The Saints finally woke up when they got the ball back 51 yards away from the goal line with 1:38 to play in the half — which, as we all know by now, is plenty of time for Brees.

The Saints reached the Dolphins’ 1-yard line with 5 seconds left when Brees went to the sideline to confer with Payton, who considered taking a chip-shot field goal that would have cut the deficit to 24-6 going to halftime.

That wasn’t good enough for Brees, who felt the team needed more than three points to get going. He convinced Payton he could leap over his offensive line and nudge the ball across the goal line for a touchdown.

“When they called the timeout, Drew spent a little while in my ear, and he felt confident he could get the ball over (the goal line),” Payton said then.

“I told him I’d get it … I told him I’d get the TD,” Brees said after the game. “I knew what to do from the 6-inch line. ... It was a big emotional lift to get a touchdown going to the half.”

It was all downhill from there for the Dolphins, who scored 24 points in a 131/2-minute span of the first half but had a nightmarish second half. The Saints scored twice on interception returns and added three touchdowns and a field goal on offense.

But the game turned on Brees’ 1-yard TD dive.

“He scored,” a smiling Evans said, “and we came out in the second half and were a different team.”

Never feeling like they’re out of a game, even one in which they turned the ball over four times and allowed Brees to be sacked five times, is one of the hallmarks of a Payton-coached team.

“The mentality we play with is, we’re never out of a game and will always continue to fight,” said free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who watched the game from New Orleans with an ankle injury. “That’s been developed over the years here, and it’s a big advantage for us.

“We’re always going to keep trying and do stuff and fight until the end.”