The Saints rode a five game winning streak into freezing Cincinnati, where the Bengals had an eight-game losing streak. The Saints led the Queen City at 9-3, but they didn't make it easy.
In the end, Sean Payton preyed upon the mistakes of his opponents, and the Saints demoralized a franchise with a 34-30 victory.
Gregg Williams' defense stopped the Bengals cold on three straight first half trips inside their own 10 yard line. Twice the Saints forced Marvin Lewis to attempt field goals with a rookie placekicker, though Clint Stitser made both short field goal attempts. On their third trip into the red zone, the Saints defense got fired up. Jerseys 41 and 51 for the Saints dropped Cedric Benson for a big loss on fourth and inches. On the Bengals' final drive of the first half, Sedrick Ellis buried Carson Palmer to snuff out a last-second heave.
So in the first half, the Saints defense did their job, allowing some movement but coldly rejecting the Bengals in the red zone. Carson Palmer seemed far more affected by the cold weather than his opponent Brees, who was very sharp. Palmer was also stricken by painful dropped passes by Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Jermaine Gresham.
Owens did beat CB Tracy Porter on a fly route, drawing a 45-yard pass interference penalty that set up the Bengals' second field goal. The Bengals found much of their success on the ground, with Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott accounting for 42 of the Bengals' 127 first half yards.
It was the first half offense that struggled, collecting two field goals themselves by Garrett Hartley, one for 48-yards out and one from very short range. The offensive line was beaten for a sack on third and long on the Saints' first drive of the game, drew a number of penalties including holding on RG Evans, false start on C Jonathan Goodwin, and holding on LG Carl Nicks, all in the first half.
The Saints moved into position for Hartley's second field goal thanks to big plays by rookie TE Jimmy Graham. Graham had an 11-yard reception at the sideline and then snuck behind the defense to find Brees' perfectly-tossed loft. The rookie raced downfield for a 52-yard gain to the Bengal 12, chased down by speedy safety Reggie Nelson. Graham had another gain of 14 yards on a screen wiped out by a Jahri Evans holding call.
Brees hit Lance Moore for six but then fired incomplete to Moore and Shockey in the end zone to set up Hartley's 24-yard kick from the right hash.
The difference would be another rookie, Chris Ivory's dynamic running style, collecting 64 yards on hard running in the first half, 55 on a scoring burst up the middle when safety Chinedum Ndukwe aggressively committed inside and Ivory had a clear lane through the Bengals back seven.
The rookie Ivory, the 2010 version of 2007 Pierre Thomas, kicked off the Saints' first drive of the second half with a tackle-breaking, pile-carrying run of 21 yards. Brees overcame an illegal substitution penalty and yet another holding call by G Jahri Evans with the help of a brilliant, one-handed diving catch by TE Jeremy Shockey to the three yard line of the Bengals.
Ivory punched it in from there to give the Saints a 20-6 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bengals would strike back on their first drive of the second half, moving methodically down the field with a 10-play, 60-yard drive that began after Garrett Hartley's kickoff bounced out of bounds. Palmer rolled and found Terrell Owens running away from CB Jabari Greer towards the endzone sideline. But after that touchdown, the rookie Stitser missed the extra point.
On the Saints' second drive of the second half, a hurried Brees overthrew Marques Colston deep down the middle on third down, and Nelson intercepted it. The Bengals turned that interception into seven points with a short Benson run. Stitser made the extra point and the Saints were up 20-19 a minute into the fourth quarter.
Three plays later, Brees would atone for one mistake on a deep pass by hitting a wide-open Robert Meachem on a deep pass. Meachem hauled it in and jogged for the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown.
On those two touchdown drives of the second half, the Saints didn't face a third down.
The Saints defense forced a punt thanks to a great diving tackle by Tracy Porter of Jordan Shipley on third and six. But the Saints had 12 people on the field for the punt, giving the Bengals a free first down. The Saints had another big penalty, a defensive holding flag on S Roman Harper that gave the Bengals a first down inside the Saint 4.
The Bengals would make the Saints pay for those costly mistakes. RB Bernard Scott punched it in for the score, the Palmer hit the rookie Gresham for the two-point conversion and the game was tied at 27 with 8:11 left in the game.
Brees would be sacked for a big loss by DE Carlos Dunlap on third down of the next drive, a coverage sack when Brees had lots of time sitting in the pocket. The punt was returned 18 yards into Saints territory, and the Bengals had the ball with 6:16 left to go.
The Saints defense held, thanks to a third down miscommunication between Palmer and Ochocinco, and the rookie Stitser's field goal with 4:25 left in the game gave the Bengals their first lead, 30-27.
Meachem would again provide a big gainer when Brees hit him running across the deep middle, moving the Saints down to the Bengal 15 under three minutes to play. A seven yard gain on a draw by Reggie Bush set the Saints up with 4th and 2 inside the Bengal 10 with :34 left in the game, down by three.
Brees stayed on the field, Payton opted not to go for overtime, lining up the offense. On a day when Brees' passing stats were nearly flawless, it was his silent count that proved clutch.
But Brees didn't snap, instead drawing the Bengals' right defensive tackle Pat Sims offsides, a five yard penalty and first and goal.
Payton's gutsy gamble had paid off, and a day full of miscues by both teams was decided by one of the most basic mistakes in the game.
On the next play, Marques Colston easily beat CB Jonathan Joseph to the front corner of the end zone for the three-yard, game-winning touchdown. Hartley's extra point made it 34-30.
The Bengals returned the kickoff to near midfield, but a sack by Roman Harper snuffed out the Bengals' desperation pass attempt. Saint sacks prevented last-second heaves from being thrown at the end of both halves.
Brees finished the day completing a remarkable 24 of 29 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, though his single interception was turned into a touchdown, Brees equalized it with a score of his own on the next drive.
The Saints' offense benefited from a healthy dose of their rookie horse Ivory, who finished with 117 yards on just 15 carries, a healthy 7.8 yard/carry average, and two touchdowns. Reggie Bush's second game back from injury was less disastrous than his Thanksgiving debut last week, and Bush collected 26 yards on 5 carries. His three catches resulted in no gain.
Much like Thanksgiving, Robert Meachem's touches were few but significant. On three balls thrown his way, Meachem had three catches for 106 yards including his 52-yard touchdown and a 42-yard catch that helped win the game. Lance Moore caught six of seven passes thrown his way for 36 yards. Marques Colston caught three balls for 63 yards including a 43-yard catch on Brees' second pass attempt and the game-winning touchdown.
Roman Harper triggered the Saints defense today, leading the team with nine tackles, a game-killing sack, two tackles for loss and a credited quarterback hurry. Jonathan Vilma had eight tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and a hurry. Completing the strong center line of the Saints defense, DT Sedrick Ellis collected three tackles, a half-ending sack, a tackle for loss, a hurry and a forced fumble.
On an penalty-filled day, the Saints were flagged 11 times for 100 yards, including a 45-yard pass interference call on Tracy Porter. Payton referred to the number of penalties today as "awful," and questioned the 12-men on the field penalty on a fourth quarter Bengals punt that put the Saints defense on the field. The Bengals were flagged seven times for 43 yards, but none more costly than Sims' five yard neutral zone infraction with 34 seconds left in the game.