NEW ORLEANS — It was a roundabout route taken by the New Orleans Saints. But, finally, they managed to achieve the expected result.
They fell behind by two touchdowns to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles in the early going Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game at the raucous Superdome. But they rallied behind the daring of Coach Sean Payton and the passing of quarterback Drew Brees to beat the Eagles, 20-14, and advance to the NFC championship game.
“Obviously we didn’t start this game the way we wanted to,” Brees said. “They jumped out to a 14-point lead. But, listen, we were calm and we were poised. We knew that we were going to get things going. But obviously we had to do that quickly.”
The top-seeded Saints will host the second-seeded Los Angeles Rams here next Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. It’s a rematch of a regular season game won by the Saints. The Saints were rusty at the outset Sunday but became the fourth home team coming off a first-round playoff bye to prevail in four tries around the league this weekend.
“In our league, there’s going to be games where you fall behind,” Payton said. “We’ve played in a handful of those already.”
They played in one Sunday with plenty on the line against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Saints had rested Brees in Week 17 and then had the opening round of the playoffs off, thanks to their No. 1 seed and their bye. They were not at their best early in Sunday’s game.
They trailed 14-0 in the second quarter when Payton ordered a fake punt on fourth and one from his own 30-yard line. It was reminiscent of the successful onside kick that he dialed up to start the second half when the Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, in the Super Bowl to conclude the 2009 season.
This time, Taysom Hill ran for four yards and a first down. The Saints concluded that drive with a touchdown pass by Brees to wideout Keith Kirkwood on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2-yard line, and they cut their deficit to 14-10 by halftime.
“I trust Taysom a lot,” Payton said. “He’s a powerful runner. . . . I know it was early in the game. And yet . . . we needed to shift momentum. And we were able to, fortunately, and take advantage of it.”
Brees called the fake punt “huge,” and added: “It was a calculated risk. It’s not like we’re just flying by the seat of our pants out there. These are things we’ve talked about. These are conversations we’ve had for critical situations. . . . If you don’t have a play you like, you don’t go for it.”
Brees’s third-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas gave the Saints their first lead, and kicker Wil Lutz upped the advantage to 20-14 with a fourth-quarter field goal.
Lutz missed from 52 yards with 2:58 remaining to give the Eagles a final chance. But Foles threw a tipped-pass interception to Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore with 1:52 to play after the ball went through wide receiver Alshon Jeffery’s hands on a play that began at the New Orleans 27. It was Lattimore’s second interception of the day, and it enabled the Saints to run out the clock with one first down.
“We took their best punch,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “Honestly they came out swinging in that first quarter.”
Brees finished with 301 passing yards, and Thomas had 12 catches for 171 yards.
The Saints ended the unlikely postseason run of Foles and the Eagles. Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win last season and, while filling in at quarterback for injured starter Carson Wentz again, got them into this season’s playoffs with three straight victories to close the regular season, followed by a first-round victory last weekend at Chicago.
But now he and the Eagles head into an offseason in which Foles could become a free agent, with his contract containing a $20 million mutual option for next season.
“Your emotions, you’re figuring them out right now,” Foles said.
Foles threw for 201 yards on 18-for-31 passing in what may have been his final game with Philadelphia. He had a 37-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordan Matthews on the Eagles’ opening drive, followed by a touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak on Philadelphia’s second possession.
But the Eagles were shut out from there, and the Saints gradually took control. The Brees-to-Thomas touchdown that gave New Orleans its first lead capped a monstrous 18-play, 92-yard drive that took nearly 11 1/2 minutes off the clock. The Saints persevered after having an apparent touchdown earlier on the long march negated by a holding penalty.
The Eagles played far better after losing to the Saints by 41 points in the Superdome during the regular season. But Foles’s magic finally ran out.
“It’s tough because it’s so final,” Eagles Coach Doug Pederson said. “It’s the end of the season. . . . We keep talking about having no regrets and leaving everything on the field. They did that tonight.”
Foles intercepted: As the Eagles were driving for a potential game-winning touchdown, a Nick Foles pass went right through the hands of Alshon Jeffery and into the arms of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The interception effectively sealed the game, as New Orleans ran out the clock to advance to next week’s NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. (Saints 20, Eagles 14 with 1:52 left in 4th quarter)
Lutz misses: Kicker Wil Lutz could have all but sealed the outcome for the Saints but missed wide right on a 52-yard field goal attempt with 2:58 remaining. The Eagles have the ball and a chance to win.
Lead up to six for Saints: The Saints have upped their lead to six points, at 20-14, on a 39-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz in the fourth quarter. Tailback Mark Ingram had a 36-yard run on the drive. That’s 20 straight points for the Saints. (Saints 20, Eagles 14 with 10:28 left in 4th quarter)
Saints carry narrow lead into fourth quarter: New Orleans takes the lead into the fourth quarter at the Superdome. They’ve scored 17 straight points since trailing, 14-0, in the early going. Nick Foles must summon some fourth-quarter magic to keep the Eagles’ season from ending.
New Orleans takes the lead: The Saints took their first lead of the day, at 17-14, on a two-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to wide receiver Michael Thomas to cap an 18-play, 92-yard drive that took 11:29 off the clock. An apparent touchdown pass from reserve quarterback Taysom Hill to tailback Alvin Kamara was nullified earlier on the drive by a holding penalty. (Saints 17, Eagles 14, 1:40 left in third quarter)
New Orleans cuts into Philadelphia’s lead: The Saints capped a seven-play, 67-yard drive with a 45-yard Will Lutz field goal just before the end of the first half to reduce the Eagles’s lead to 14-10. (Eagles 14, Saints 10, halftime)
Saints get on the board: It took a pair of fourth-down conversions on the same drive, but the Saints have scored. The touchdown came on a 2-yard, fourth-and-goal pass from Drew Brees to wide receiver Keith Kirkwood. Earlier, the Saints converted a fake-punt run by Taysom Hill on fourth and 1 from their own 30-yard line. Coach Sean Payton perhaps sensed that things were getting a little desperate, even in only the second quarter. Wideout Michael Thomas had a 42-yard catch and run soon after the successful fake punt. (Eagles 14, Saints 7, 7:23 left in 2nd quarter)
The Saints look rusty: The first quarter is over and the Saints trail, 14-0. They look rusty after giving Drew Brees a rest in Week 17 and then having a first-round playoff bye. The Eagles, meanwhile, were playing for their postseason lives every week down the stretch. The Saints did next to nothing on offense in the first quarter. The Eagles almost forced another turnover late in the quarter when Brandon Graham stripped the ball from Brees. (Eagles 14, Saints 0, 15:00 left in 2nd quarter)
Eagles increase lead: The Eagles are taking it right to the top-seeded Saints. They made it two touchdowns on two possessions and upped their lead to 14-0 when Nick Foles scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak set up by a 30-yard completion to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and a three-yard run by Wendell Smallwood. (Eagles 14, Saints 0, 4:37 left in 1st quarter)
Saints lose Rankins: A bad start has gotten worse for the Saints. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was taken from the field on a cart. He’s been one of the Saints’ better defensive players this season. The team to score first has won every game so far during this NFL postseason. The Saints are going to have to break that trend if they want to advance to the NFC title game.
Eagles take early lead: The Eagles needed a good start, and they’ve gotten it. They cashed in on the turnover by the Saints with a 37-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Foles’s magic touch has continued into another game, at least for now. He went 5 for 5 for 65 yards on the drive. (Eagles 7, Saints 0, 10:41 left in 1st quarter)
Good start for Eagles: It was deafening in the Superdome at kickoff, and the Saints went on offense first. They went for a big play on the opening snap but Drew Brees’s deep pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was intercepted by Eagles cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. That’s a good start for the Eagles after they lost by 41 points here during the regular season.
The Saints advance to the NFC title game on Jan. 20 against the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints will host the Rams, just as they did in November in a 45-35 victory.
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