First Down/Fourth Down: Saints prove just good enough to end road playoff drought
The New Orleans Saints have been in existence since 1967. They've done a lot of great things during that time, especially in the Sean Peyton era, but they'd never won a road playoff game in five tries. That changed Saturday night, when Payton's team outlasted the Philadelphia Eagles in a 26-24 game that turned from defensive stalemate to shot-play duel as the first half moved to the second. It was a 7-6 game in Philly's favor at the half, but two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL came alive and fought right up to the end, with Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal deciding it as time expired.
"Honestly, nothing but confidence," Saints quarterback Drew Brees told NBC's Michele Tafoya about his team's mindset. "We know what type of team we are, we know how good we can be -- it's just a matter of putting it all together. We had a great week of prep, and a lot of it's just believing in each other. Ignoring what everyone else has to say; everyone's going to have an opinion. But we know what we're all about, and this was a great testament to that."
Here were some of the highlights from the Saints' improbable win at Lincoln Financial Field.
• First Down: Rob Ryan's defense keeps it real ... for the most part.
Philly quarterback Nick Foles has been on fire for most of the season, but Foles and the rest of Philadelphia's offense found it tough sledding against Rob Ryan's bunch -- especially in the first half. Foles threw for just 98 yards in the first 30 minutes, LeSean McCoy was limited to 32 yards on 10 carries and DeSean Jackson was targeted just once and held without a reception. Of course, that worm would turn as soon as the Saints suffered a key injury (more on that below).
• Fourth Down: New Orleans' backup defensive backs reveal a major flaw.
When cornerback Keenan Lewis was forced from the game with a concussion, Foles knew exactly who and where to target. Already without cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Kenny Vacarro, New Orleans' secondary looked more vulnerable without Lewis than at any other time during Ryan's one-year tenure with the team. Foles found cornerbacks Corey White and Rod Sweeting to be particularly easy marks, and while he threw for just 195 yards in the game, the pass interference call on White with 5:47 left in the game on a long pass to Jackson gave the Eagles 40 bonus yards and set Foles up to throw the touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz that gave Philly a late lead.
• First Down: Mark Ingram's big breakout.
In his third season with the Saints, the former first-round running back from Alabama has mostly been a disappointment, rushing for over 100 yards in a game just once in his career. Ingram didn't bust the century mark in this game, but he came close enough with 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Ingram ran tough, helping Brees maintain drives in the second half when that was desperately needed. Add in contributions by Khiry Robinson and Darren Sproles, and New Orleans' 185 rushing yards to Philly's 80 was a key differential in a game this close.
• Fourth Down: Philly's inability to take advantage of early mistakes.
When Brees throws two picks and amasses just 98 yards in a first half and you're the opposing team, that means that you've been given a tremendous gift from the gods. The Eagles were not able to take advantage, and they gave up big plays to Brees in the second half when the Saints offense came around. New Orleans held the ball for just under nine minutes in each of the final two quarters, and both of their third-quarter drives ended in touchdowns. Even after a three-and-out in their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Saints managed the two final field goals that has them advancing in the NFC postseason to face Seattle.
• First Down: Chip Kelly's worst-to-first turnaround.
That said, it's fairly amazing what Eagles head coach Chip Kelly did in his first year in the NFL. Not only did he redefine the offense to his own preferences, but also he benefitted from a defense run by Billy Davis that got a great deal better in the second half of the season. Kelly helped turn Foles into one of the game's most efficient quarterbacks in the league in Foles' second season, and he balanced the run and pass as effectively as anyone possibly could. It's a disappointing end to the season for the Eagles and their fans, but the 10-7 mark in 2013 is a radical improvement over 2012's 4-12 mark, and this team looks poised to be fierce in 2014 if it can maintain what it has and add a few key pieces.
• Fourth Down: New Orleans' next stop.
The Saints' "reward" for their historic playoff win is a return trip to Seattle's CenturyLink field, where they were beaten 34-7 on Dec. 2. Brees was limited to 147 passing yards that day, as Seattle's opportunistic defense limited his options downfield all night -- he was 0-for-8 on passes over 15 yards. "It's loud, and it's crazy," Brees told Tafoya of his return trip destination. "They've got a good thing going, obviously -- they've only lost one game there in the last two years. But having been there less than a month ago, I think that serves us well. Just knowing what to expect, how to prepare for it ... but we're going to need our best game, that's for sure."