Kenny Stills ran all alone down the sideline, ball tucked under his arm, and the New Orleans Saints very much in charge.
Suddenly a mess at home, the Saints found themselves on the road. Stills' 69-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter served as the exclamation point of a 35-32 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday that finally had the Saints looking like a first-place team on the field, not just in the standings.
Drew Brees passed for five touchdowns for the ninth time in his career. Stills hauled in five catches for 162 yards and his game-breaking score for New Orleans (5-7), which ended a three-game losing streak by dominating the ever erratic Steelers (7-5).
"Offensively, defensive and on special teams, we can play with the best teams in the league," running back Mark Ingram said. "As long as we don't hurt ourselves, we can win football games."
Certainly looked like it as Ingram finished with 122 yards rushing and the lackluster New Orleans' defense forced a pair of Ben Roethlisberger interceptions that Brees turned into touchdowns the other way. While the Saints weren't perfect — allowing a pair of late Pittsburgh scores to make the final closer than the reality — they looked the part of a contender while winning for the first time in a month.
One of the leaders of a division that has served as a punchline of late, New Orleans scored a blow for the NFC South by pushing Pittsburgh around.
"Winning is everything to this team," linebacker Junior Galette said. "As long as I've been here, we never lost three games in a row, especially at home, so this was a big win today. We entered this game professionally and went out there and did the job."
And Pittsburgh continued to spin in place. Roethlisberger passed for 435 yards and two touchdowns to Antonio Brown but also tossed the two costly interceptions. Le'Veon Bell piled up 254 total yards — 159 receiving and another 95 rushing — but the Steelers didn't exactly come out of their bye week with any sort of sizzle. Three of Pittsburgh's five losses have come against teams at least three games under .500.
"It's got to stop," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "Everybody. Top to bottom. We've got to stop doing this. We're shooting ourselves in the foot and we've got too many good guys, too many good players to not win these games."
For whatever reason, the Steelers are not winning them, and time is running out.
Some other things we learned with a month to go in the regular season.
NO GRAHAM, NO PROBLEM: New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham spent four quarters as the most talented decoy on the field. It hardly mattered. With the Steelers focusing much of their attention on stopping one of the NFL's top targets, Brees went to work. His five touchdown passes went to Stills, Marques Colston, Erik Lorig, Ben Watson and Nick Toon.
"I don't care if I get zero catches, 10 catches or 20, as long as we win," Graham said.
SO LONG TO DA BEARD? Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel left in the third quarter with a torn triceps and didn't return. The 36-year-old Keisel's locker was already clear by the time the media entered after the game. His season, if not his career, appears to be in jeopardy.
"It almost makes you want to cry when you lose a guy like that because he's a leader and so instrumental to what we do here," safety Mike Mitchell said.
HAND'S OFF: Roethlisberger hit just 32 of 58 passes but refused to place blame on a bum right hand. The quarterback shook the hand several times after slamming it into the helmet of New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton in the first quarter.
"It was just one of those days that the balls were coming out high," he said.
FIGHT NIGHT: New Orleans coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan exchanged words in the third quarter when the Saints were forced to call timeout because they had 12 players on the field. Despite reports of dissention between Payton and Ryan, Payton said there are no issues between the two.
"I love what he's doing," Payton said.
LOOKING AHEAD: Even though Pittsburgh trails Cincinnati by 1.5 games the Steelers are in control of their fate. Pittsburgh plays the Bengals twice over the final month, including a meeting next Sunday in Cincinnati. The Saints host Carolina next Sunday. New Orleans beat the Panthers 28-10 on Oct. 30.
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