New Orleans — Drew Brees and Wil Lutz supplied the accuracy and poise New Orleans needed to overcome another officiating gaffe and its defense’s late collapse.
Lutz made a 58-yard field goal as time expired, and the Saints beat the Houston Texans 30-28 on Monday night in a game that had three scoring plays in the final minute.
“That one’s got to be a top-one moment for me,” Lutz said, adding that as much as he tries to treat each kick the same, “I got to be honest. That one felt a little different.”
New Orleans had lost its previous five season openers. And after last season ended with a bitter loss in the NFC title game, the Saints had expressed urgency to start the 2019 campaign well.
“I knew how big this win would be,” Lutz said.
The moment the ball left Lutz’s foot, punter Thomas Morstead, who holds on field goals, turned toward his kicker, triumphantly flexing both arms at his side. Moments later, the crowd noise in the Superdome reached an ear-splitting crescendo as the ball split the uprights and Saints players jubilantly streamed onto the field.
Deshaun Watson threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to ex-Saints receiver Kenny Stills with 37 seconds left, capping a two-play, 75-yard drive that put the Texans in front after they began their final possession down by six with 50 seconds left.
But that left just enough time for Brees, who capped a 370-yard, two-touchdown performance by completing a 15-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr., an 11-yarder to Michael Thomas and another pass to Ginn for 9 yards in quick succession. That allowed New Orleans to save its final timeout until just 2 seconds remained and set up Lutz’s career-long kick.
“When you have Drew as your quarterback, all I cared about was getting ready for the kick, because I knew with 37 seconds left there was going to be a chance,” Lutz said.
Had the Saints lost, it would have marked the second straight game in the Superdome in which a league-acknowledged officiating mistake worked against New Orleans. In last season’s NFC championship game, missed pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact fouls against the Los Angeles Rams went uncalled in the final minutes. This time, a botched ruling left the Saints with 15 fewer seconds to run their hurry-up offense at the end of the first half. New Orleans had to settle for a 56-yard field goal try that Lutz narrowly missed.
The Saints came back from an 11-point, third-quarter hole to win anyway, but Brees wasn’t letting the officials or the league off the hook.
“That can’t happen. That’s a game changer,” Brees said. “If we had 15 more seconds, are you kidding me?”
The 40-year-old Brees completed 32 of 43 passes, mirroring his NFL-record 74.4 completion percentage last season. One of his TD passes went to reserve QB and utility player Taysom Hill, who also subs in as a tight end or slot receiver. The other went to second-year pro Tre’Quan Smith.
“Playing on the road against a great quarterback like Drew Brees, you’ve got to be able to put the game away,” Watson said. “We had the opportunities.”
The officiating mistake occurred when replay review officials stopped the game with 26 seconds left in the first half to determine if Thomas’ catch was long enough for a first down after he was initially marked just short. After the review resulted in a first down, officials called for a 10-second runoff to begin from when the game was stopped, not when Thomas came down with the ball 15 seconds earlier.
Brees animatedly disputed the decision, which left the Saints just 16 seconds to work with from their own 47.
After the game, NFL vice president of officiating Al Riveron said: “We should have reset it to 41 (seconds), not 26, and then ultimately to 31 (seconds) after the 10-second runoff.”
Fans in the Superdome, who won’t soon forget last year’s officiating gaffes, booed during the runoff and after Lutz’s long miss.
Thomas caught 10 passes for 123 yards, and Ginn’s seven-catch, 101-yard night was highlighted by his 41-yard reception deep down field at the 2-minute warning.
Alvin Kamara had 169 yards from scrimmage, including an 11-yard run set up the first score of the final minute on Lutz’s 47-yard kick.
Watson completed 20 of 30 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns – two of them to DeAndre Hopkins. Watson also ran for a 21-yard score on a fourth-down play.
The Texans finished with 180 yards rushing – 68 yards more than the Saints allowed in any game last season – with Carlos Hyde rushing for 83 yards and Duke Johnson 57.
Linebacker Whitney Mercilus intercepted Brees deep in Texans territory and also had Houston’s only sack.
The Saints, by contrast, had six sacks of Watson, two by reserve end Trey Hendrickson.
Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and the offensive line kept 2018 AFC sack leader J.J. Watt from getting to Brees.
“We didn’t do a good job of stopping the run and we didn’t do a good job of stopping the pass,” Watt said, adding that he felt his unit let Watson and the Texans offense down.
Monday's late game
(At) Oakland 26, Denver 16: Derek Carr threw a touchdown pass on the opening drive of the season, rookie Josh Jacobs ran for two scores and the Raiders responded to a tumultuous week surrounding Antonio Brown by beating the Broncos.
"I feel like somebody was smashing my temple on the side of the head," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said about the Brown situation. "Get over it, man. It's over. We were good this preseason without him. We were fine without him. We wish him the best. We gave it a shot. Now New England gets their turn. Good luck to them. I can't deal with it anymore."
The Raiders took out any frustration over the drama surrounding Brown with a convincing win over the AFC West rival Broncos (0-1). The offensive line cleared holes for Jacobs and protected Carr, and the defense harassed Joe Flacco into three sacks and kept Denver out of the end zone until 2:15 remained in the game.
The win spoiled the Denver debuts for Flacco and coach Vic Fangio and ended the NFL's longest opening weekend winning streak at seven games.
Steelers stall minus Brown, Bell
The post-Antonio Brown era is off to a bad start for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh struggled to generate offense in a 33-3 loss at New England on Sunday night in its first game since parting with the four-time All-Pro wide receiver from Central Michigan. Without Brown to throw to, Ben Roethlisberger finished 27-of-47 for 276 yards and an interception.
This time, unlike last season when he publicly criticized Brown’s performance after a Week 12 loss at Denver, the Steelers’ quarterback shouldered the blame.
“I wasn’t good enough,” Roethlisberger said. “Wasn’t giving guys the balls where they needed to catch ‘em. Putting them in front (of them), behind, things like that. I wasn’t good enough.”
Pittsburgh’s only points came on Chris Boswell’s 19-yard field goal early in the second half. Roethlisberger had 161 passing yards through three quarters before dressing up his stats in the fourth, and the Steelers went just 3 for 12 on third down conversions.
“We’ve just got to make more plays for No. 7 (Roethlisberger),” new Steelers receiver Donte Moncrief said. “It starts with the whole receiver’s room, everybody on offense. We’ve got to be better.”
The disgruntled Brown was traded to Oakland last March and signed a three-year extension with the Raiders. He requested and was granted his release by Oakland on Saturday after a tumultuous offseason and training camp.
A few hours later, Brown was headed to the Patriots, the Steelers’ top AFC rival.
“My professional reaction is I really don’t have one,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast before the game.
“We’ve been emotionally detached from him for some time now.”
Brown wasn’t the only loss to leave a void in the offense. Two-time All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) held out all of last season over a contract dispute and signed with the Jets during the offseason.
Bell’s replacement, third-year running back James Conner, had 21 yards on 10 carries and the Steelers managed only 32 rushing yards.
Bell rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown for the Jets against Buffalo on Sunday.
Ex-AFLer Carmichael dies
Al Carmichael, the running back who scored the first touchdown in the old American Football League while playing for Denver in 1960, has died in Palm Desert, California.
He was 90.
Carmichael caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from Frank Tripucka, the father of former Piston Kelly Tripucka, on Sept. 9, 1960, in the Broncos’ 13-10 win over the Boston Patriots at Nickerson Field on the Boston University Campus in the AFL’s inaugural game.
Carmichael, who set an NFL record with a 106-yard kick return in 1956 and was elected to the Packers Hall of Fame in 1974, also worked as a Hollywood stuntman and double in dozens of movies.
Colts coach Frank Reich says receiver Devin Funchess (Michigan) will be placed on injured reserve after having surgery on a broken collarbone.
Funchess was injured during Sunday’s 30-24 loss at the Chargers while diving to catch a pass in the end zone in the final minute of regulation.
... Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith will miss several weeks after spraining his knee in Sunday’s game against Miami.
... The Raiders have brought back undrafted rookie receiver Keelan Doss to fill the spot on the roster created after Antonio Brown’s release.
... Falcons rookie guard Chris Lindstrom, the No. 14 overall draft pick, has a broken foot and will spend the next eight weeks on injured reserve.