It must be Heinz Field. That can be the only explanation. The New Orleans Saints came rolling into town yesterday with a 6-2 record, sitting pretty atop the NFC South Division, a legitimate playoff contender if not a Super Bowl threat. And almost immediately they turned into ...
The bumbling, fumbling Steelers of '06?
Three lost fumbles. A huge dropped pass. Two long runs and two long touchdown passes allowed by the defense. Two long returns allowed by the special teams. A missed field goal. An untimely personal foul penalty. A horrible coaching decision on an instant-replay challenge.
You get the idea it was that kind of day for the Saints?
They earned every bit of this 38-31 loss to the Steelers.
"The turnovers cost us," said rookie running back Reggie Bush, already the face of the resurgent -- at least until yesterday -- Saints.
"They hurt us bad. Not to take anything from the Steelers, but if you take away those turnovers, you take away 21 points from the Steelers."
Have we heard that sad song around here a few times this season or what?
Saints coach Sean Payton tried to be gracious in defeat. "Credit Pittsburgh because I thought they played with a lot of emotion and a lot of heart. They played like last year's Super Bowl champions." But he and his players clearly believed the better team lost. "It was our game," defensive end Will Smith said, "and we pretty much gave it up."
The Steelers surely can relate.
How many times this season have they felt they were the better team only to lose because of their mistakes?
They have six losses, don't they?
The Saints' fumbles did the most damage. Tight end Billy Miller lost one on their second offensive play, handing the Steelers a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Bush lost one at the Saints' 43 midway through the third quarter when they were leading, 24-17. Wide receiver Terrance Copper lost the third one at the Steelers' 25 after a 20-yard catch in the final minute.
But there also were the big plays allowed by the Saints' defense. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward caught a 37-yard touchdown pass. Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson had a 38-yard touchdown catch. Running back Willie Parker had runs of 72 and 76 yards on his way to a staggering 213-yard game. The Saints gave up 467 yards.
There were the 40- and 31-yard kickoff returns by the Steelers' Najeh Davenport. There was John Carney's failed 32-yard field-goal try. There was guard Jahri Evans' personal foul penalty for hitting Steelers linebacker Joey Porter after a play. There was Copper's dropped pass at the Steelers' 23 moments before his fateful fumble. There was Payton's misguided challenge of Bush's fumble -- costing his team a timeout it could have used at the end -- when replays clearly showed the ball was out.
"There's a lot we have to clean up," Payton said.
Look out if the Saints get that done.
They have some terrific players, especially on offense.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 398 yards, a big part of the Saints' 517-yard game. Rookie-of-the-year candidate wide receiver Marques Colston -- almost unbelievably, a seventh-round draft choice out of Hofstra -- had another huge game with 10 catches for 169 yards. "[Scouting] is not a perfect science," Payton said, shrugging. Bush showed off the marvelous athletic ability that won him the Heisman Trophy at Southern California last season, leaping over Steelers safety Ryan Clark to score a 15-yard touchdown on a double reverse.
Maybe all of that explains why the Saints -- OK, the head Saint -- had the last laugh last night.
Not long after the game, Payton was in a Heinz Field tunnel, yukking it up with actor Dennis Quaid and his third wife, Kimberly. It was hard to tell who was most star-struck when the group posed for a picture -- Payton or the Quaids.
Hey, can you blame Payton?
At the end of the day, he went home to New Orleans with a 6-3 team that still owns first place in its division.
Compare that to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who led his family and friends past Payton and the Quaids virtually unnoticed on their way out of the stadium, into the chilly night.
Big Ben and the Steelers lugged home their 3-6 record and were still in last place in the AFC North Division when they woke up this morning.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1525.