NEW ORLEANS — Nearly three hours before kickoff between the Eagles and Saints, 80 or so Saints season-ticket holders picked up their handful of Old Glory and began to unfurl the flag across the Superdome field.
Commonly at NFL games, the pregame entertainment rehearses at least once before the fans are allowed in the doors. But during this dry run, Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner didn’t play in that moment—the Saints’ other anthem did.
“Choppa style, chop chop Choppa style” screamed from the Superdome speakers. The 2002 song by rapper Choppa has become the victory song for the 2018 Saints, popularized by Teddy Bridgewater’s “bike style” dance moves, and the audio group at the Superdome was preparing to play it early and often as New Orleans hosted Philadelphia.
But with the Saints down 14–10 in the third quarter and having never led, the opportunity wasn’t there. Not until an 18-play (really 22-play), 92-yard (really 112-yard) drive that culminated in a two-yard Michael Thomas touchdown that ultimately provided the first and only lead the Saints would need in their 20–14 dispatching of the reigning Super Bowl champions on Sunday.
There are plenty of moments from the divisional-round matchup to choose from that could be provided as a turning point in a game that finally ended Nick Foles’s magic: Sean Payton’s gutsy call to try a fake punt with Taysom Hill from his own 30 with the Eagles defense in place and prepared for the fake, or Marshon Lattimore’s first interception that led to New Orleans’s first points, or Marshon Lattimore’s second interception—by way of a hole in Alshon Jeffery’s hands—that sealed the game. But perhaps nothing was more soul-crushing than the drive that took up the majority of the third quarter and showed how dangerous, diversified and resilient this Saints offense is.
The drive—the first of the second half for New Orleans—began at the Saints’ eight-yard line. The team was gifted a defensive holding penalty on the second play, and they finally crossed midfield after eight plays, during which they faced just one third down—just your everyday Saints’ offensive series.
On first-and-10 from the Philly 46, Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill got a step on Avonte Maddox, but Brees waited too long to pull the trigger and the would-be touchdown fell incomplete. Much to Hill’s surprise, Payton called his number on the very next play, queueing up a 46-yard pass to Alvin Kamara that went for a touchdown but was called back due to an Andrus Peat holding penalty.
“I’m kind of itching on the sideline to get those plays called and ran,” Hill says, “and we missed an opportunity the first and then missed one thereafter with penalty. But Coach [Payton] is a mastermind of finding matchups and that’s what he did.”
Undeterred, Brees went to Michael Thomas on the following play for a 20-yard gain that earned the first down. Thomas was later asked if the Eagles double-teamed him less this time than in their first matchup in November when he caught four passes for 92 yards. “Whatever they did didn’t work,” he said.
Another conversion and another holding call eventually had the Saints in third-and-16 at the Eagles’ 32. Philadelphia dropped into zone and Brees, with time, surveyed the field until he found Thomas again for another 20-yard gain. Thomas finished the game with 171 receiving yards, blasting the Saints’ postseason record of receiving yards in a game.
At this point, the Saints and Eagles had played 16 official plays and 19 unofficial plays. Payton pointed to the long drive as a good thing for his defense, which had been on the sideline for more than 15 minutes in real time.
“I was bored,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan says. “Honestly I love when our defense takes the field. I love being able to go get it. I got cold. I had to go hit the bike.”
The drive wouldn’t have been complete without another penalty, with Peat drawing his second flag of the drive on a false start. “All you can do is shake it off and keep playing,” he says, figuring this to be the longest drive of his career. The Saints had a 19-play drive earlier in the year against Baltimore that ended in a fumble, but it only consumed 10 minutes of clock. In fact, this was the fourth drive of 18 or more plays in the postseason since 1999, according to Pro Football Reference.
Two plays later, Brees found Thomas in the end zone for the two-yard touchdown. One minute and 44 seconds remained on the third-quarter clock. Thomas didn’t celebrate, in large part because he had no one to celebrate with. Left tackle Terron Armstead went straight for the bench to find the oxygen mask.
“Everybody was gassed. I wasn’t gassed. I wasn’t blocking or hitting or catching any balls. That was a fulfilling drive,” Brees said. “That just was the tipping point. It turned the tide in that whole game and from that point on everything after that was just building the lead.”
By the time Will Lutz was preparing for the ensuing kickoff, Armstead had his oxygen and Jordan had finally gotten warm again. With his fresh legs, linebacker Demario Davis was dancing on the sideline. The Saints finally had the lead, and “Choppa Style” was blaring in the Superdome once again.
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