BALTIMORE -- In the days leading up to Sunday's scintillating stylistic showdown between the NFL's top scoring offense and its stingiest scoring defense, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was in touch with his inner nerd.
Awash in several binders' worth of statistical analysis that broke down the Baltimore Ravens' tendencies and traditions during the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era -- some of which he shared with his players during a team meeting two days before the game -- Payton showed up at M&T Bank Stadium with a whole list of bullet points on the brain, most notably getting off to a fast start and winning the time of possession battle.
Twenty plays, 69 yards, four fourth-down gambles and zero points later, Drew Brees and his offensive teammates left the field feeling frustrated -- but even in failure, the coach had set a tone that may well resonate into the postseason.
"That first drive was important," Payton said as he sat in his office in the visitors' locker room about an hour after the Saints' 24-23 victory. "Time of possession, and I thought the wind was a factor in the first half. To eat up clock, going into the wind ... that was big."
Even bigger was the fact that Payton threw caution to the wind -- literally and figuratively.
On the fourth play from scrimmage, with New Orleans facing a fourth-and-1 from its own 34, Payton called for a fake punt, with up-back/jack of all trades Taysom Hill taking a direct snap and gaining 4 yards to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, Brees converted on a fourth-and-1 sneak from his own 47 -- foreshadowing a similar play by the future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback on the Saints' go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Later, on fourth-and-2 from the Ravens' 31, running back Mark Ingram rumbled for a 5-yard gain.
Finally, on fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 4, Hill -- the team's third-string quarterback who sometimes situationally subs for Brees -- ran an unsuccessful option to his right; Hill's errant pitch to halfback Alvin Kamara was recovered by Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce at the 6, sending 70,639 fans into a raucous rendition of the White Stripes' iconic "Seven Nation Army" guitar riff, and Payton into a brief fit of second-guessing.
"Knowing the type of game it was gonna be, it would have been smarter to kick," Payton said, smiling, as he prepared to leave the stadium. "But you're just so invested in that drive."
As it turned out, the coach's aggressive approach would pay dividends. Yes, the Ravens, who'd come into this matchup surrendering a mere 12.8 points a game, had made a valiant stand against a New Orleans offense averaging 36 per contest. But Payton's players on both sides of the ball understood the overarching overtones.
This wasn't a coach cowering in the face of his critics, or stressing out about his job security. No, this was Play For Keeps Payton, the swashbuckler whose surprise onside kick to start the second half spurred the Saints to their lone Super Bowl victory nine seasons ago -- and who's going for broke as Brees, 39, nears the end of his brilliant career.
"Yeah, man -- we're playing to win," Brees said before heading off to his postgame press conference. "It just set the tone for the game -- a 20-play drive, if you count the fake (punt) -- and the confidence he showed in us."
A few minutes earlier, Cameron Jordan, the Saints' star defensive end, put it this way: "When you're going against a defense like the Ravens have, you have to do that -- why be afraid of anything? They're trying to play Bully Ball. Well, we're bullies too. [Payton] told us, 'We're gonna take the fight to them.' He's been preaching that all week. And he backed it up, right from the start."
When it was over, the Saints (5-1) had escaped with a one-point victory in the most improbable fashion: After Joe Flacco's 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown with 24 seconds remaining brought the Ravens (4-3) to within a point of tying the game, Tucker -- the NFL's best kicker, by far -- missed the first extra point of his career, ending a streak of 222 consecutive conversions.
That wasn't the only statistical improbability that occurred Sunday (more on that in a minute, when we delve into the contents of Payton's binders), but the Saints' fifth consecutive victory transcended numbers. Twelve years after teaming up to turn around a reeling franchise, Payton and Brees are in search of a mentality that can carry them into what they hope will be another championship run -- one which looked possible last January before the "Minnesota Miracle" abruptly intervened. (Conveniently, the Saints return to U.S. Bank Stadium to face the Vikingsnext Sunday night, meaning Payton will only have to confront the replay of Stefon Diggs' shocking touchdown catch another 50 times or so.)
"It's just about finding ways to win," Brees said of Sunday's victory, during which he became the fourth player in league history to throw his 500th career touchdown pass (joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady). "The more ways you can find ways to win games like this, the more confidence that breeds. Then, no matter the circumstances, you believe ... and then you can carry that with you."
The Saints started slowly in 2018, suffering a 48-40 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their opener and escaping with a 21-18 victory over the Browns in Week 2 by the grace of an off-the-mark Cleveland kicker. Things got better thereafter, but even after a 43-19 blowout of Washington heading into New Orleans' bye week, Payton began obsessing over the upcoming game with the Ravens, poring over the statistical breakdowns in his binders like an honors student cramming for a final exam.
Sitting in his locker-room office long after Sunday's game, Payton shared some of the contents:
-- Before Sunday, the Ravens, since 2017, were 13-0 in games in which they led at halftime and 0-9 in games in which they trailed. (So much for that: The halftime score was 10-7, Baltimore.)
-- Also since 2017, the Ravens were 13-1 when holding their opponent to 20 points or fewer -- and 0-8 when surrendering 23 or more. (Make that 0-9.) And since 2008, when Harbaugh became the Ravens' coach and Flacco, then a rookie, seized the starting quarterback job, Baltimore was 19-54 in games in which its opponent scored at least 21 points. "We knew going in: 21 was the number," Payton said.
Said Payton: "You do all the analytics ... you look at field position, time of possession ... but I don't want anyone to tell me what I should do (in the moment). Because what they can't factor in is, I have a backup left guard playing, and what if (Terrell) Suggs is kicking my right tackle's ass. These (numbers) are just overviews. But they're helpful."
Another number that loomed large heading into Sunday's game: The Ravens' defense, which has developed into a punishing unit under first-year coordinator Don Martindale, had yet to give up a second-half touchdown in 2018 -- the first time a team had accomplished that in the season's first six games since the 1934 Detroit Lions.
On the second (and pivotal) scoring march, Payton scoffed at playing it safe once more: With the Saints down 17-14 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 18, Payton blew off a potential tying field goal and put the game in the hands of Brees (22 for 30, 212 yards, two touchdowns), though he did do his best to maximize the impending quarterback sneak's chances of success. As Brees pushed forward and extended the ball forward toward the first-down spot before pulling it back toward his body, Payton had already laid the groundwork for the conversion.
"It's a technique he's been pretty good at," Payton said. "You work the side judge so he doesn't miss that. Talking to him, you say, 'Come here; let's watch this together. We're gonna watch him get a first down.' I've seen it too much, so I know what he's doing. But they can miss it if you're not careful."
Three plays later, Brees found Michael Thomas in the end zone with a 5-yard connection that marked the 501st touchdown pass of his career. Even after a fourth-down stop gave the Saints the ball back at their own 36 with 3:19 remaining, Payton stayed aggressive, and New Orleans ultimately went up by seven on Wil Lutz's 39-yard field goal with 2:15 to go.
That's another cool milestone for a quarterback who hoards them, but it's not the end-game. The real goal, of course, is to capture a second Super Bowl victory, a quest from which Payton is not shying away. That was patently obvious last April when the Saints traded up in the draft, shipping their 2019 first-round pick (and their 2018 fifth-rounder) to the Packers to jump 13 spots and snag edge rusher Marcus Davenport with the 14th overall pick.
"We have a window," Payton said, shortly before departing the stadium. "We all know the deal."
After Sunday, the Saints know this: Whatever cards their coach is dealt, he's going to lay them on the table -- and he's damn sure playing to win.