The Browns needed a mistake-free offense, two pick-six touchdowns and two big plays on specials teams to beat Drew Brees and the Saints.
Brees, whose new baby boy was named Bowen this past week, was intercepted twice by David Bowens, each time for a touchdown.
Former Saints Jake Delhomme, Mike Bell and Scott Fujita made their returns to the Superdome as Browns, while FS Darren Sharper returned to the field for the Saints. The Browns won big despite being out-gained 394-210 yards.
The Saints offense struggled to turn drives into points while the game was still in hand. Scott Fujita made his return presence known in the Superdome right away. A sack on Brees snuffed out the Saints’ second possession, a strong pass rush over TE David Thomas. Then Fujita intercepted an errant Brees pass in the red zone, ending the Saints’ third possession.
The Saints offense was devastated by penalties in the first half. A questionable pass interference call on Malcolm Jenkins set the stage for the Browns’ first touchdown, giving the ball to the Browns at the Saint 4. Offsetting hands to the face penalties wiped out the Saints’ first points of the game, negating a touchdown strike over the middle from Brees to Moore. Brees would then be picked off by Fujita. A holding penalty on Heath Evans wiped out a big run gainer by Ivory in the second quarter.
The Browns took advantage of two short fields, one granted by a pass-across punt return returned inside the Saints’ red zone by CB Eric Wright, who caught a lateral that arced across the field from Josh Cribbs and streaked down the left sideline. After Jenkins’ long pass interference penalty, Peyton Hillis dashed in on a weakside sweep where Browns blockers gobbled up rookie Patrick Robinson and free safety Darren Sharper easily and the Browns went up 10-0 thanks to short fields.
The Saints wouldn’t get on the board until later in the second quarter, when pinning the Browns deep in their own territory won a field position battle that allowed the Saints to move within field goal range. Hartley hit a 32-yard field goal with 5:32 left in the half to make the score 10-3.
On the next possession, the Saints sacked McCoy on third down and set up a punt with less than four minutes remaining on the clock. But the Browns struck again with special teams trickery. P Reggie Hodges instead of punting the ball ran straight up the middle of unsuspecting coverage teams who didn’t rush the punt. Hodges dashed a whopping 68 yards after return man Lance Moore whiffed on the tackle and gunner Malcolm Jenkins chased him down inside the 10 yard line. The Saints defense held on that red zone possession and forced a second Phil Dawson field goal and a 13-3 lead with 2:18 left in the half.
Brees’ passing game would not get on track against the dynamic 3-4 defense of Rex Ryan. The Browns dropped two easy interceptions in the first half, one by safety Abram Elam and another by safety TJ Ward. But defensive lineman Bruce Bowens wouldn’t drop the next chance. Getting the ball back inside the two minute warning, Brees struggled away from the pass rush and threw the ball over the middle. His desperation pass bounced off the chest of Bowen, then off the back of RG Jahri Evans, then back into the hands of Bowens, who caught it at his shoelaces and ran down the sidelines for an uncontested touchdown return.
The Saints were down 20-3 when Brees got the ball again with 1:49 left in the half, and on the first play Brees would be sacked by Marcus Benard, the Browns’ third sack of the half. Two plays later, Brees heaved the ball as deep as he could, but it was intercepted by CB Sheldon Brown, the third pick of Brees in the half and the second in as many minutes. Meachem tackled Brown quickly and McCoy kneeled off the final 20 seconds of the half. Mangini and his rookie quarterback went into the locker room up 20-3 on the Super Bowl XLIV champions.
Cleveland punted on their first possession of the second half. The Saints came out firing and moved the ball near midfield when penalties struck again. For the second week in a row, a Saints player generated a double-penalization all by himself. Carl Nicks was hit for a 10-yard holding call during the play and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, setting up a 1st and 35 the Saints would not recover from, and punted. On the punt, the Saints gave more yardage with a 15-yard penalty on Courtney Roby for not running back on the field of play immediately. Roby was blocked out of bounds and into a member of the chain operator team.
Medical personnel immediately swarmed in, the chain operator, Al Nastasi, was carted off the field and to the hospital.
In the third quarter Brees led a gutsy, long and time-consuming drive that was kept alive by an 8-yard run by Chris Ivory on 4th and 2 and cashed in on a heads-up play by TE David Thomas, who improvised his way open on a play when the Browns dropped nine men into coverage. Brees hit Thomas, who shook his coverage and dashed between tacklers for a dive-through touchdown reception from 11 yards out. That capped a long, 8+ minute drive that took up most of the third quarter.
On that fourth down, the Saints had taken their field goal team off after a lengthy delay on challenged play by both teams. After a reception, Colston was ruled to have fumbled the ball, but a Saints challenge overturned the fumble and gave Payton time to put the offense back on the field with a play call that worked.
Down 20-10, the Saints defense appeared to stop the Browns on third down after a replay review upheld a down-by-contact call, but an illegal hands to the face penalty on Malcolm Jenkins gave the Browns a first down at their own 29.
Peyton Hillis, the former Arkansas Razorback and Denver Bronco, then ran the ball down the Saints’ throats, running the ball six straight times for 31 yards as the Browns kept the ball on the ground. The Browns then converted a big third down with a direct snap to Hillis, who threw the ball back across the field to Colt McCoy, who was wide open for a 13-yard first down reception down to the Saints 31.
The defense brought McCoy’s drive to an end at the Saint 26 but not after having run 7:32 off the clock, and set up a Phil Dawson 43-yard field goal attempt. A false start on the Browns moved it back five yards, but Dawson hit it anyway to put the Browns up 23-10 with 5:55 to play.
The Saints started moving the ball again, and Brees converted a game-preserving fourth down with just over four minutes left with a pass to the ever-open Lance Moore. But two plays later Bowens picked Brees again, returning it unchased for 65 yards and a 30-10 lead. Bowens dropped in coverage and floated over from Brees’ left to right side, and Brees threw it right to him. That was a game-killer and ended what semblance of momentum the Saints had.
The Saints' next drive was in front of a thin crowd in the Superdome, with three minutes left and down by thirteen points. WR Lance Moore would help convert another fourth down as the Saints drove inside the Browns red zone, and a defensive holding call converted another fourth down. Brees found Colston at the back of the end zone within the two minute warning to make it 30-17. Moore caught eight of five balls for 43 yards, Colston caught 10 of 15 balls thrown his way for 112 yards and the final score.
Garret Hartley’s quick-switch onsides kick attempt was recovered by the Browns easily with 1:37 left. McCoy kneeled off the remaining time, having beaten a youth idol of his from Texas.
Brees’ four interceptions tie a career high. He finished 37 of 56 for 356 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns by Bowens, one was meaningless at the end of the first half. The first snuffed out a promising red zone possession. Brees had not thrown four picks in a game since Week 3 of the 2007 season, a Monday night demolition by the Titans.
McCoy finished 9/16 for only 74 yards and Hillis for all the damage he did rushed for only 69 yards. But two defensive touchdowns and scores on short fields made for a blowout.
The Saints were hit seven times for 98 penalty yards, the Browns were flagged four times for 30 yards.
The rest of the NFC South won on the day, the Saints fall to 4-3 and third place in the NFC South.
Notes: In his first game of the season, Darren Sharper didn’t start at free safety, but rather it was Usama Young. Jenkins, Torrence and Robinson played cornerback and Sharper came in during third down situations. Robinson played well and showed off some good open-field tackling… The Saints used Ivory and Betts in different ways, running almost exclusively with the rookie and only throwing to Betts out of the backfield. Ivory did not catch a pass and rushed for 48 yards on 15 carries, Betts did not attempt a rush and caught 8 passes for 48 yards. Julius Jones the third back collected only a single carry for 6 yards…
Sharper wrote on Twitter after the game: “Tough loss, I promise you we will continue to work to get better. We will bounce back. Next week we gotta show whose the real black &gold.”
Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma wrote: “thank you guys for your continued support...we're being tested right now as a team, we're going to fight through and come out better for it.”