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The city of New Orleans, pummeled by Hurricane Ida weeks ago, is rising out of the darkness. The New Orleans Saints did amazing things in the Florida sunshine on Sunday.
The nightly curfew that made streets barren following Ida was lifted in the city just last week, and the grid has slowly but surely been rebuilt, bringing power back.
But things still haven’t been quite right.
Nothing’s ever right for weeks following a hurricane. There are shortages to supply and hungry people to feed, roofs to replace and lives to rebuild.
Amid these real life problems that have threatened to derail the Gulf Coast, a displaced, nomadic football team is fighting to keep its season on course. And this is the first step:
New Orleans Saints 38.
Green Bay Packers 3.
“The challenges back home are far greater than our team getting on a plane and playing an away game or having to relocate,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said Sunday evening after the blowout victory. “The challenges at home are far more significant. And hopefully today was a good break from everything else that people have been focused on.”
The Saints traveled to Jacksonville to play a home game on Sunday against the Packers. There were more Packers fans in the stands than Saints fans. And even if those fans didn’t make a difference, the Saints certainly didn’t enjoy the din that is the Caesars Superdome for a regular-season opener.
And still the Saints refused to play as if a hurricane had brought them to their knees.
The Saints rushed for 171 yards behind what running back Alvin Kamara called the “NFL’s best offensive line.”
Quarterback Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes — five! — without an interception.
Honestly, if this continues at any similar rate the remainder of the season, Payton is going to go down as perhaps the greatest quarterback guru of all time because the last time Winston was a fulltime NFL starter, he threw 30 interceptions.
And the Saints’ defense humbled Rodgers. He was sacked only once but was often harassed behind a rebuilt offensive line, and he threw two interceptions that caused his quarterback rating to sink to 36.8 for the afternoon.
Don’t underestimate this because Rodgers threw five interceptions all of last season.
Green Bay coach Matt LeFleur said the Saints “embarrassed us today.”
“I’ll let him use those words and I’ll use ‘it’s just one game,'” Rodgers said. “We played bad. I played bad. Offensively we didn’t execute very well. It’s one game. We’ve got 16 to go.”
The New Orleans’ domination was so decisive, Rodgers finished the game on the bench — wearing a look of frustration on his face and maybe thoughts of hosting Jeopardy! in his head.
The Saints dealt Green Bay’s ego blow after blow, including a 55-yard connection between Winston and receiver Deonte Harris that turned a blowout into that embarrassment LeFleur later referenced.
“I guess this is what the Saints’ offense has been missing,” former Saints All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees quipped while filling his new duties as an NBC analyst.
And the entire time during this surprising turn of events, seemingly everyone on the New Orleans sideline was aware of how they were affecting the people back home.
“I just want to stop and say, even though we’re not back home, our heart is with our family and friends back in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “Our prayers are there. Our support is there. And certainly going into this game, we knew it meant a lot, not just to us, but it meant a lot to the city.
“We talked about it as captains. We knew that some people still don’t have power, but they were going to find a way to watch the Saints.
“That’s what this team means to the city. And the city means the same to us. We’re one. And to have a statement game like we had today, which kind of revives hope in adverse time, we always going to push through and get to the other side.”
The Saints obviously concerned themselves with schemes and fundamentals and performing at a high level on Sunday. But everything, it seemed, was somehow connected to the hurricane.
After the game, when Payton handed out game balls, one of those went to the operational staff that helped the team relocate from New Orleans to Dallas and then to Jacksonville for the game.
“There’s so much that goes into equipment and hotel planning and all that,” Payton said. “And the main goal is to create an environment where all the other distractions are removed and you can focus on football, and those people really did a good job the past two weeks.”
Even Winston, who is now well on his way to redirecting his career path, wasn’t thinking about himself and how this game changes the narrative about him.
Forget that narrative. This was Winston’s message:
“That was for the city, so shoutout to the city of New Orleans,” he said. “We did that for them. We knew how much it would mean to get a great victory for that region — they’ve been through so much.
“And for us to be able to celebrate this victory with them, it’s just hats off to them for their resilience, right? Because they motivated us. They inspired us to come out there and ball.”