Macaulay Culkin was once Home Alone at Christmas.
Two days before this Christmas, the New Orleans Saints on Sunday made sure they will be home in their dome for the duration of the NFC playoffs, surrounded by their legions and smoking a victory cigar.
The New Orleans Saints can mark another item off their to-do list for the 2018 season.
After Sunday’s draining, pulsating, but ultimately satisfying 31-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, no matter what point on the NFC map you start from one thing will be your true north:
The road to Super Bowl 53 will run right down Poydras Street.
You want to get to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of February’s ultimate game? You have to first pay a visit to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and try to knock off the Saints, now 13-2 and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time since they won the Super Bowl in 2009.
“Everything,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, “has to come through us.”
Good luck, NFC contenders. Enter at your own risk.
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The Saints might not be exactly running with as many boilers lit as they were at midseason, when they were steaming through the schedule for 10 straight wins. This scratch-and-claw victory comes on the heels of a 2-1 road trip in which it looked like opponents pretty much picked the lock of the Saints’ once overwhelming offense, limiting it to just under 17 points per game.
But one thing about this four-game stretch, or more to the point, this hard-fought three-game winning streak over the Buccaneers, Panthers and now the Steelers: The Saints have shown they can win anywhere, and in virtually any type of game.
"It was a battle,” said Brees, who led New Orleans to win for the third straight time after trailing in the fourth quarter. “Listen, we’re battle-tested. We feel like we’ve had a lot of these this year, and each one of them I feel like has molded us and made us a little bit stronger. It’s a team effort. I love this team. I love to find out how we’re going to win every week."
With the offense rationing points lately like a dieter counting calories toward their new year’s resolution, the Saints were faced with a huge challenge.
New Orleans took a 24-14 lead with 9:13 left in the third quarter on a 1-yard Alvin Kamara touchdown leap, but back came Ben Roethlisberger and the breathtaking Pittsburgh passing attack. Big Ben teamed with Antonio Brown to carve up a Saints’ defense that hadn’t allowed more than 17 points in six straight games like Grandma’s Christmas ham, biting off huge chunks of yardage.
The Saints returned to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday for the first time since Thanksgiving night.
Suddenly it was 28-24 Steelers after three quarters. The Saints looked like they would have to do something they had not done since the Los Angeles Rams (remember that team, you may see them here in the NFC playoffs) came to town and went down to New Orleans by a 45-35 score.
They would have to win an offensive shootout.
As it turned out, the Saints needed just one passing touchdown to win: a 2-yard Brees pass to his top target, Michael Thomas, with 1:25 remaining. This was shortly after a huge 25-yard catch by fresh-off-injured-reserve Ted Ginn Jr. on third-and-20 from the 32.
It was enough because the Saints defense rediscovered their earlier stopping power to force two enormous fumbles: one from former LSU tailback Stevan Ridley on a third-and-2 run at the New Orleans 34, and the other on the final drive when defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins slipped into coverage and stripped the ball from wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with 32 seconds left.
“We have playmakers all across the field,” Saints defensive tackle Tyler Davison said. “When it’s time to make a play, you know someone is going to step up.”
The Saints’ special teams have playmakers, too. Craig Robertson and Chris Banjo teamed to stop Roosevelt Nix on a fake punt at the Steelers 46 a yard short of the marker to set up the winning scoring drive.
“I take responsibility for that,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after he went all Kirby Smart on that call (Georgia’s coach attempted a similarly ill-fated fake punt in similar circumstances in the SEC Championship Game). “I thought that if we did not stop them that we would have the opportunity to have the ball last. We did. Obviously, unsuccessful.”
Maybe it was the ear-splitting, college-like atmosphere that made Tomlin roll such desperate dice. The dome was mad, mad I tell you, with thousands of “Terrible Towel” waving Steelers fans peppering the stadium like the thousands of Georgia fans who invaded LSU’s Tiger Stadium back in October. Now 8-6-1, the Steelers are a half-game behind Baltimore in the AFC North and may well be out of the playoffs.
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With home field secured, on the 17th NFL Sunday the Saints shall rest. As in rest some key starters for what is now going to essentially be an exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers next Sunday.
“There’s benefit to having a first-round bye and being the (number) one seed,” Brees said. “We hope to take full advantage of that.”
That means setting themselves up after a first-round playoff bye, needing two wins to get to the Super Bowl — first in the NFC divisional round (either Jan. 12 or 13) and then in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20.
Two games. Both now definitely, firmly, at home.
“We are going to keep getting better,” safety Vonn Bell said, “but we are going to run everything through the Dome. What a feeling.”
The rest of the NFC playoff field is having a different feeling.