New Orleans shrugs off history in road win over Eagles
PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe the Saints aren't who we thought they were.
You know: The team that can't win on the road, away from the Superdome, out in the elements that so often define postseason football.
"As much as we hate that talk, we kind of brought it upon ourselves," quarterback Drew Brees admitted.
And then, with a 26-24 wild-card playoff win on the Eagles' home turf Saturday night, they got rid of that stigma -- for this week, at least.
The Saints' 3-5 record away from home in 2013, and historical winless road playoff record -- 0-3 in the Brees-Sean Payton era, and 0-for-47 years in franchise history -- have now been changed, with a tall mark added in the win column. And the way the Saints did it, behind a strong ground game? That broke a tendency, too.
Before the win, which earns sixth-seeded New Orleans a date with the Seahawks, a mantra at their practice facility was "Do something you have never done before."
"We've talked about that in the past," said right tackle Zach Strief. "There are times that to advance your legacy, or advance your opportunities, you have to do things that maybe you have never accomplished."
The Saints made several trivial changes this week, like switching Gatorade flavors from orange to green, and acquiring new NBA-grade road sweat suits. What they did on the field was more significant: The pass-first team rushed for 185 yards (their second-highest total of the season), with 97 of those yards coming from Mark Ingram, the former first-round pick who so far in his three-year NFL career has only once contributed more. Their opponent, who had this season's winner of the NFL's rushing title in LeSean McCoy, managed just 80 yards on the ground.
The Saints thought they had an advantage in size against the Eagles' defensive front, even if not in speed, so they seized it. Short-yardage runs had been a weak point this season, but Brees converted three third-and-one's; the last two ensured the Saints could wind down the clock all the way to three seconds before Shayne Graham kicked the game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.
"The line of scrimmage was the difference, I think," Payton said.
It isn't often that an NFL team can turn the ball over twice in the first half on the road (Brees threw two interceptions), and nearly a third time (a Jimmy Graham fumble that was overturned on replay), and leave town with a victory. But the Saints only trailed by one point at the half, 7-6, and felt that they'd controlled the game if not for their own mistakes.
Still, New Orleans needed a late rally. Its already thin secondary lost its top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, to a head injury in the third quarter, and instantly the game changed. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, who had been bottled up by Lewis, caught his first two passes of the game on the next two plays. A matchup that had been surprisingly low-scoring turned into a game of who could score last.
The Eagles jumped ahead, 24-23, on a Zach Ertz touchdown catch with 4:54 to play. To win, the Saints ran nine times out of the 10 plays on their game-winning drive, running out the clock and setting up the field goal that sent them to the divisional round.
"This offense will be tough if we can maintain balance," Strief said. "It just will."
To keep winning, the Saints have to continue doing things they're not known for doing. By virtue of ceding the NFC South to the Panthers, their playoff success or failure will be determined away from home. Next week's game against the Seahawks is even farther away, perhaps even colder, and against a team that dominated them by a 27-point margin just five weeks ago.
But Payton also told his team something else last week: "You carry your history," meaning that the 2013 Saints don't have to be what anything in the past says they are. As a symbol of that, Saints owner Tom Benson received a game ball in the locker room, honoring the club's first playoff road win. Now, how many more can they get?