NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he had “no idea” who invited former receiver Robert Meachem to serve as honorary captain for a game that brought back memories of the greatest season in Saints history.
“I think that was more coincidence,” said Payton, who also agreed it would be “very fair” to compare New Orleans’ stunning fourth-quarter comeback against Washington on Sunday to another wild overtime win against the Redskins in 2009 — a game in which Meachem scored two pivotal touchdowns for a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.
Indeed, those seasons are starting to look increasingly alike. There has been a long winning streak comprised mostly of convincing victories, along with a memorable comeback against the franchise from the nation’s capital.
Whether the 2017 campaign brings another title to New Orleans remains to be seen. Yet there’s no denying that these first-place Saints are enjoying heady times as they ride an eight-game winning streak into the climactic final six weeks of the regular season.
“It is surreal to be in the moment with some of the guys in this locker room and I just try to cherish these moments because it’s been a good ride,” said tight end Josh Hill, who scored the first of two late touchdowns that wiped out a 15-point deficit in the final minutes of a 34-31 overtime victory on Sunday. “We’re looking to continue this, so I’m just trying to stay in the moment and feed off this momentum.”
Hill was in college at Idaho State when the Saints won the Super Bowl and still two years away from turning pro when New Orleans won eight straight to finish 13-3 in 2011. But Hill remembers watching those Drew Brees-led teams on television. And now, in his fifth NFL season, Hill is now experiencing firsthand a similar run with the same record-setting quarterback.
“To have the series of events happen the way they did (against Washington) was something else,” Hill said Monday. “The stadium was electric. Guys were playing for each other and it was just fun. You could just feel the positivity from the entire team. When you feel that, you know you have something special.”
The 2017 Saints are relying more on younger players in prominent roles than the veteran-laden 2009 squad did. Brees was quick to point that out, but also added: “You’re watching this thing come together before your very eyes.”
“We’re playing with a ton of confidence and we feel like we have a ton of momentum,” Brees said. “You feel like you can win anywhere, anytime, and any way.”
Payton said he doesn’t get out much during the season, but having lived in New Orleans since 2006, he’s had enough interactions with fans to sense the energy surrounding his team now.
“The fans are passionate and I think they feel like we are always in a game and there’s that resiliency, and maybe in years past they didn’t feel that way,” Payton said, referring to the previous three seasons, each of which ended with 7-9 records. “That excitement that’s generated from a game like that at home is something certainly you sense.”
When the Saints came back to beat Redskins in overtime eight years ago , the game was in Washington. Meachem played an enormous role. He scored a 44-yard touchdown when he ripped the ball away from a Redskins defender during an interception return. He also caught a tying 53-yard touchdown pass in the final minute — but only after the Redskins missed a routine field goal that could have sealed a different result.
The Saints then got a turnover in overtime to set up a field goal for a 33-30 triumph.
On Sunday, the Redskins entered tiebreaking field goal range in the final minute of regulation before being pushed back by a fluky, disputed intentional grounding penalty. Second-year safety Vonn Bell then sacked Kirk Cousins to force overtime, which ended with a Saints field goal.
Bell was just a high school kid back in 2009. He could only compare the environment inside the Superdome on Sunday to his rookie campaign, when New Orleans never got above .500.
“You could feel the energy,” Bell said. “It was different from last year. It was a night-and-day difference. I can tell you that.”