Opinion: Close wins nerve-wracking but might make New Orleans Saints better in long run

CHICAGO — Of course the New Orleans Saints would prefer blowouts. To not have games that are decided by a handful of plays or that rest on the shoulders – or the leg, rather – of their kicker.

That said, there is something to be gained from these close games. A lot, actually. When the Saints do find themselves in the position of needing a stop by their defense, or a first down by Alvin Kamara or a 40-yard field goal by Wil Lutz, they know they can do it.

Because they already have. Time and time again.

The Saints’ 26-23 overtime victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday was their third in a row decided by three points, and the second to require overtime. Of their five wins this season, only one has been what you’d call comfortable, that 11-point win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers way back in Week 1.

“Battle-tested is what it is,” Drew Brees said Sunday. “No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we’re going to be able to draw on lot of these other moments where we had to find a way to win.”

The Saints' Wil Lutz celebrates after making the game-winning field goal against the Bears in overtime Sunday at Soldier Field. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

The Saints know what they have in Brees, who can run a 2-minute drill as well as anyone in the NFL. He did it again Sunday, cutting Chicago’s lead to 13-10 at the half with a surgical, nine-play, 68-yard drive that ended with Brees finding Jared Cook for a 16-yard touchdown.

But they also know what they have in their defense. It’s why coach Sean Payton had the confidence to punt after the first possession in overtime, despite New Orleans being at the Chicago 45 and needing just two yards to pick up the first down.

Sure enough, the Saints sacked Nick Foles twice on the next drive, and allowed the Bears to gain a total of eight yards before they, too, were forced to punt.

“When he put it on us, we look for those moments,” linebacker Demario Davis said.

And the Saints know what they have in Lutz. So much so that, even with the wind swirling and gusting in Soldier Field all afternoon, Payton sent Lutz out for the 35-yard game winner on first down, with more than a minute still left.

“He’s got enough moxy, made enough big kicks, he’s got confidence in himself,” Payton said. “That’s real important.”

Saints coach Sean Payton likes the moxy of kicker Wil Lutz. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Situations like this, nerve-wracking as they might, build confidence. The Saints came to Soldier Field without Michael Thomas (hamstring), Marquez Callaway (ankle) and Emmanuel Sanders (COVID-19). That’s three of their top receivers.

So Alvin Kamara became Brees’ main weapon, catching nine passes for 96 yards and running for another 67 yards. Taysom Hill and Jared Cook caught touchdowns.

But Deonte Harris, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, had three catches, one of which converted a fourth-and-6 to keep a scoring drive alive. Tommylee Lewis and Juwan Johnson, activated from the practice squad ahead of this game, both had catches.  

And on and on it goes.

Yes, the Saints will be thrilled to have Thomas, Callaway and Sanders back. They’re a better team with them. But the confidence the young, previously untested players have gotten the last few weeks will stick with them.

As the Saints get deeper into the season, when they play the Buccaneers next weekend or the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs next month, the stage won’t be too big. For any of them.

“The last two games, four of our top five receivers been undrafted free agents,” Brees said. “That’s a team effort. Guys are just fulfilling their role and what they’re asked to do. It’s just everybody doing their job.

“That’s what the great teams do,” Brees said. “You find a way to win.”

That might sound cliched, but it’s also true. There is a reason young teams, young players, talk about needing to learn how to win. Needing to trust in one another.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens in games like this.

Some will look at the score, or the 10-point lead that was blown in the fourth quarter, and question how good the Saints really are. Wonder whether there’s much substance to their 5-2 record.

But the Saints won’t. Instead, they’ll squirrel away the confidence that comes from having so many players contribute to the win and each unit having a hand in picking the team up. The next time they’re in this situation – and there is always a next time in the NFL – they’ll be able to draw on that.

“We have been in a lot of close games like this and we’ve won a lot of close games,” Hill said. “(So) we never thought we would lose that game.”

The big wins are the easiest. But they’re not necessarily the best.

Not in the long run.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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