It was Teddy Roosevelt, the president who once threatened to abolish football because it was getting too violent, who first coined the now well-worn phrase, “Nothing in the world is worth having … unless it means effort, pain and difficulty.”
The New Orleans Saints lived that idiom to the hilt Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was a day filled with effort, pain, difficulty and big plays erased by little yellow flags. But ultimately, the biggest thing in the Saints’ world wound up in their slightly sweaty palms:
A 20-14 victory in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs over the reigning Super Bowl champions, and the right to host the NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday for just the second time in franchise history.
It started about as bad as it possibly could.
Was it worth it, Saints fans? I’ll ask you after you stop hyperventilating. But I think we know the answer.
“Tip your hat to Philadelphia,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who grew up right outside the city. “Those guys came and brought the fight to us early and really put us in a hole.
“But we made enough plays. Most importantly we got the win. We beat the defending champions, and that means something.”
This was nothing like the regular-season meeting between these two teams back on Nov. 18, when the Saints demolished the Eagles like a condemned building 48-7. You knew it would not be. Looking back, that game represented the height of the Saints’ form this season. And Philly to its credit rebounded to win five of its last six games, plus a nip-and-tuck wild-card round playoff game last week at Chicago.
For a long while it looked as though the Saints might come up embarrassingly short and join the 2010 New England Patriots (of all teams) to lose in the playoffs after beating a team by 40-plus points in the regular season. It was a look that started with the game’s very first play as Drew Brees loaded up a long pass for Ted Ginn Jr., who got open behind cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. Brees' pass died short of the mark and instead of an opening touchdown LeBlanc came up with the interception at his 24. It set up an ominously impressive seven-play touchdown drive for the Eagles culminating in a 37-yard touchdown pass from America’s Backup, Nick Foles, to Jordan Matthews.
Suddenly it was as though someone had taken the electric energy coursing through the Superdome and pulled the plug like in Super Bowl 47.
It would get worse.
The Saints, needing a response, swung and missed. New Orleans went three-and-punt and the Eagles marched for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead. In the midst of it Sheldon Rankins, the Saints’ All-Pro worthy defensive tackle, had to be carted off with what is feared to be a playoff-ending torn Achilles’ tendon.
“Obviously we didn’t start the game the way we wanted to,” Brees said. “(But) we were calm and poised.”
Saints fans, already jittery about being the top target as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, teetered between despondent and nauseous. Somehow, though, after a Brees fumble when he was hit trying to pass that New Orleans recovered, things slowly began to turn in the Saints’ favor.
Foles, who started brilliantly, showed his fallibility in the second quarter, throwing a deep one for tight end Zach Ertz that was intercepted by Marshon Lattimore. The Saints took over at their 21, stalled at their 30, but then it was the Swiss Army Knife to the rescue as Taysom Hill took the upback snap on the fake punt and gained 4 yards.
The dice rolling wasn’t done for the Saints, who went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2. Brees lobbed one into the left flat of the end zone for Keith Kirkwood to pull New Orleans within 14-7.
“It was significant to get that seven,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The fourth-down calls were two desperate decisions by Payton, but the Saints were in desperate straits. In fits and starts, stumbles and great plays, they started to mount a comeback.
The Saints' defense played a huge role. After the troubling trifecta of doom to start the game — the Eagles’ two touchdowns and the injury to Rankins — New Orleans allowed the Eagles just 47 yards on three possessions the rest of the half with the Lattimore interception. It was, given the circumstances, a heroic effort. They would not give up another score, though the game’s final moments looked as bleak for the Saints as the first.
Mr. Dependable Wil Lutz could have possibly iced the game but was wide right on a 52-yard field goal attempt with 2:58 left. Under NFL rules, the Eagles got the ball from the spot of the kick, their 42, meaning they only needed to drive 58 yards for the potential winning score.
Philadelphia appeared to be on its way, reaching the New Orleans 27 after a 16-yard Foles to Ertz pass and a roughing the passer penalty on Marcus Davenport. But Lattimore was on the spot once again as Alshon Jeffery let a ball slip right through his hands as though it was lightly buttered, with Lattimore returning it 14 yards to his 33.
Like much of the last couple months’ play by the Saints, this one was not a gem that will be enshrined in Canton. But it was a close cousin to the Eagles’ grinding 15-10 divisional round victory over Atlanta to open the playoffs last year.
Win. Survive. Advance. Figure things out for next week. Play again. This time in just the third NFC Championship appearance ever for this franchise.
“It’s unreal when you think about it,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “We are one step closer to our goals, but there is still a long way to go.”
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