It had to happen this way.
During the late dark times of 2014-2016, when they finished 7-9 every year and spent zero weeks above the magic .500 marker, the Saints had three shots to be good again. Each year, they equalized their wins and losses once, and rolled into the following week ready to climb back into contention.
Every time, crazy stuff happened, and the Saints lost.
Last year, the Saints, at 4-4, had all but beaten Denver. Having fought back from an early 10-0 deficit and overcome a pair of inopportune fumbles, they scored with 1:22 left and lined up to take a 24-23 lead. Then the Broncos won the game by blocking the extra point and returning it for two points of their own.
In 2015, the Saints, having leaped back from what felt, for a moment, like the injury precipice of Drew Brees’ career, built a lead over the winless Titans. In control, perhaps the least-talented team of the Sean Payton era was improbably back in the hunt.
Then the Saints defense did a Saints defense thing, and 61 yards later Delanie Walker was in the endzone.
And three years ago, the Saints, again 4-4, came from 11 points behind San Francisco to finally start delivering on the immense promise of the 2014 season, and thrilled us by beating the 49ers with a game-clinching Hail Mary to Jimmy Graham.
Except a flag flew, an official announced the only offensive pass interference during a Hail Mary scrum anyone can remember, and San Francisco won in overtime.
Three games, three chances to break par, and three terrible moments so improbable that they intensified our sense that 7-9 was more than a football record — it was destiny. No matter what the Saints did, they would always find their way back here.
As a result, breaking the .500 barrier began to feel like one of those grand-but-impossible achievements: climbing Everest, flying across the Atlantic, running a four minute mile, breaking the sound barrier. We would again fail, it would be heartbreaking, and we’d keep knowing how predestined and sad every football thing continues to be. The wilderness would still extend to the horizon, and our only way out would still be to end it all, to respawn somewhere else, with no promise that the new somewhere would be anything more than a desert itself.
Look at 2014 again for another example that feels relevant this week. The Saints, 2-3, went to Detroit, outplayed the Lions and, with under four minutes left in the fourth quarter, led 23-10. Then Golden Tate made the Saints look stupid, then Drew Brees threw an interception, and then the Lions scored again. A comfortable win became a crushing loss in two minutes of fourth quarter clock time. Crazy, stupid shit.
And so this year the Saints, at .500 again, bent the crazy as far as it would go. One day, you will look back on the box score from Saints/Lions 2017 and remember the game and you’ll be amazed. Today, just be glad you’re still breathing, and that blowing such huge leads remains a Falcons specialty.
The manic intensity of the Saints’ near-collapse and subsequent shattering of the .500 barrier fit the nature of the event. More than five years ago, a similarly-intense sequence of fourth quarter events in that now-ancient San Francisco playoff game set Sean Payton and his team on their course into a long exile, with only fool’s gold and an occasional oasis to keep them alive.
Now? The Saints are back. We don’t know what happens next and that’s good. The Saints’ real achievement yesterday — which the batted footballs and defensive touchdowns and neverending final period emphasized — was resetting their story: The next thing will not be the same as the last thing.
The wandering days are over. Up ahead is an open road, and these Saints have steered onto it, accelerating with horsepower to spare.