Vikings Eagles Football

Philadelphia Eagles' Patrick Robinson (21) runs back an interception for a touchdown during the first half of the NFL football NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Matt Rourke

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The man who made the biggest play of the NFC Championship Game was once written off by the city of New Orleans.

Patrick Robinson, the cornerback the Saints drafted out of Florida State with their first-round pick months after winning the Super Bowl, was up and down in New Orleans, set back by injury, in and out of the starting lineup and justifiably allowed to walk away in free agency at the end of his rookie contract.

Robinson has been through a lot since then, getting his career back on track in San Diego only to see it derailed again in Indianapolis, then finding a home in Philadelphia this season. 

And when he picked off Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game and returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown that ended up sparking an Eagles steamroll on the way to the Super Bowl, he felt the weight of all of that adversity lifting in the euphoria of the moment.

"My experience with the Saints, my year with the Colts, all of that just made it even more great," Robinson said. "To have that moment in such a big-time, big game, on a big stage. ... it was amazing."

For all of the adversity he faced with the Saints, Robinson still loves the city of New Orleans. When the Saints plucked him out of Florida State, he joined a veteran secondary that included men like Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Roman Harper. 

"My first two years were probably the most fun I’ve had until now," Robinson said. "They made my life hell, but I still had fun.”

Robinson worked his way up to a starting role in 2012, making three interceptions although he was part of a Saints defense that set records for futility. A torn patellar tendon cost him the 2013 season, and when he came back in 2014, he lost his starting job halfway through the year, although he did make some plays in the slot as the year went on. 

When New Orleans let its former first-rounder sign a one-year deal with San Diego that offseason, no one was surprised. 

Robinson believes that moment was a turning point in his career. 

"It was needed for me to grow as a player and as a person," Robinson said. "Honestly, I don’t think I was mentally strong enough to have this type of success."

He started to turn his career around with the Chargers. Forced into the starting lineup by an injury to Brandon Flowers midway through the season, Robinson made 49 tackles, eight passes defended and an interception, playing well enough that the Colts handed him a three-year, $13.5 million contract and placed him in the starting lineup to begin the season. 

But then adversity struck again. 

A concussion and a groin injury limited Robinson to just six games, and new Colts general manager Chris Ballard cut Robinson in the offseason.

"That was my first time ever being cut," Robinson said. "I’m talking about, that was something new. I’ve never been in a position where someone said, we don’t want you. That was like a gut punch."

A gut punch that ended up giving him a chance to play in the Super Bowl. 

Former Saints teammate Malcolm Jenkins, a Pro Bowler in Philadelphia, has always had faith in Robinson's athleticism, his instincts and his feel for the game.

"He really plays well when he’s in the right environment, when he trusts the players next to him," Jenkins said. "I’ve been trying to get him here for the last three years, since he’s been on the market."

Robinson signed a one-year contract as part of a concerted effort by the Eagles to upgrade the cornerback position. Philadelphia's other moves were far more high-profile; the Eagles used a second and third-round pick on cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, then traded for Buffalo's Ronald Darby. 

But the addition of Robinson has been key. Robinson emerged as the nickel, freeing up the versatile Jenkins to make plays in a variety of roles. 

"The biggest thing is Patrick Robinson taking over and playing that spot, and making a lot of plays at the nickel position," safety Rodney McLeod said. You saw (against Minnesota), the play that we needed so dearly for this defense and this team, he steps up and makes another big one. That’s what he’s done all year."

Robinson finished the season with 47 tackles, a sack and four interceptions, tying his career high, then made one of the biggest defensive plays in Philadelphia history against the Vikings. 

He'll play a key role again on Sunday against Tom Brady and New England's fleet of wide receivers.

"New Orleans, it was kind of an up and down thing, and then getting injured in 2013, I was mentally down," Robinson said. "As I worked back, I started feeling better about myself. I had some struggles, but in my opinion, I think that helped me to get where I am now."

Philadelphia is more than happy to have him. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.