When the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers take the field at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday during a relatively uneventful week in the NFL, the headlines should have surrounded the invasion of American football onto the Queen’s soil. Instead, the Saints were imbedded in controversy, as three failed drug tests marred an otherwise stellar week for the team.
On Friday, reports surfaced that Saints running back Deuce McAllister, in addition to defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, tested positive for a supplement banned by the league’s drug policy. All three players are now facing up to a four-game suspension for their actions.
Despite the controversy surrounding their squad, the Saints somehow managed to dispatch the Chargers 37-32, behind, of all people, McAllister. The stained running back shook off the failed test, running for 55 yards on 18 carries and a score in the absence of star Reggie Bush.
Most remarkable, though, was the entire team’s ability to remain quiet throughout the weekend, dismissing any questions by reporters in London in an attempt to focus on what turned out to be a pivotal game in its season. New Orleans simply let its play do the talking, racking up 409 yards of total offense, converting on two key fourth-downs and not surrendering a single turnover.
Instead of plummeting to 3-5 and showing the league how vulnerable they are when one cog goes awry, the Saints rallied together behind quarterback Drew Brees’ 339 yards and three scores against his former team and dispatched San Diego relatively efficiently. Brees managed to rack up a 121.9 passer rating without the services of two key weapons: Reggie Bush (knee surgery) and Jeremy Shockey (hernia). Top receiver Marques Colston had his first catches since returning from thumb surgery, finishing with two of the team’s 25.
With the Saints now back from their 12-hour flight home, they will be shoved back into reality. All eyes across the country will be on McAllister and the doping scandal, and how New Orleans responds in the upcoming weeks could very well dictate the rest of its season.
With the win, the Saints stand at 4-4 and, although they are in last place in the NFC South, they are also just two games behind the division-leading Carolina Panthers at 6-2. After a bye week, New Orleans hits the road for a two-game stretch against teams with a combined record of 5-9. Following that will be a return to the Superdome Nov. 24 for matchup with the Green Bay Packers, the first home game for the Saints in over a month.
The contest against QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could very well decide the Saints’ playoff fate, but impending doom seems to be lurking in the shadows just inches away. Should McAllister be suspended, New Orleans would be without its top two running backs: the tandem that carried the team to the NFC Championship game just two years ago.
If the Saints are to overcome the decisions of Commissioner Roger Goodell, they will do it on the shoulders of Brees, who has made shredding defenses look easy this season: He is first in the league in completions, third in completion percentage, third in touchdowns and fourth in QB rating. Brees has also thrown for nearly 500 more yards than the next-best quarterback and has a league-best six 300-yard games.
True, New Orleans failed to gain any ground on the Panthers, who rallied from a 14-point deficit to win this week, but that is beside the point. Judging from the way the Saints rebounded from the vicious 30-7 spanking Carolina gave them one week ago, they had a specific agenda: trying to prove to the rest of the nation that they can do better than their performance versus the Panthers.
Even if the Saints needed to swat down San Diego quarterback Phillip River’s Hail Mary pass in the waning seconds of the game to secure the win, their victory was more impressive than the five-point margin in the box score. Should history manage to repeat itself and New Orleans wins the NFL title — the New York Giants won at Wembley last year before going on to take the Super Bowl — then the game across the pond against San Diego will be pointed to as the turning point in the team’s season, when it managed to shake off the doping scandal and secure a much-needed victory.
For the Giants, the victory in London last year was the first in a six-game winning streak that catapulted them to their historic upset of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Fans in the Bayou are hoping that lightning can strike twice.
A Week 17 date at home with Carolina could very well lock up a playoff berth for the Saints, but the only way to get there would be to somehow conjure up the same fiery display of redemption that they had against the Chargers on a weekly basis. If not, consider them vanished from the playoff picture, free to deal with McAllister and his apparent doping problems.