New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) celebrates a touchdown against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc (34) in the second half of the divisional round of the NFC playoff game in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.

It started about as bad as it possibly could.

A Drew Brees interception on the first play of the game.

Losing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins a few minutes later.

Then falling into a 14-point hole by the end of the first quarter.

But it ended just the way the boisterous Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd was hoping: with the New Orleans Saints inching a step closer to their second Super Bowl trip in franchise history.

The Saints overcame their early struggles Sunday and kept their season alive with a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

"That's not the way you want to start, but to overcome that is the story," said Drew Brees.

The Saints (14-3) return to the Dome on Sunday to host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game. The winner of that one heads to Atlanta for Super Bowl 53 on Feb. 3 to face the winner of the AFC title game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.

It was the Saints' first playoff game since losing the heartbreaker to the Minnesota Vikings on the final play last season. In that game, New Orleans dug out of an early hole before the late heartbreak. On Sunday, it was the first quarter that almost did the Saints in. But even trailing 14-0 didn't faze the Saints.

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"We were calm; we were poised," Brees said. "We knew we were going to get things going. Obviously we had to do that quickly."

Well, maybe not quickly. It was a long drive in the third quarter that finally gave the Saints the lead that they would never relinquish. The Saints went on an 18-play, 92-yard drive that milked 11 minutes and 29 seconds off the clock in the third quarter. The Saints actually gained 112 yards on the drive because of three penalties. The drive with Brees throwing a 2-yard pass to Michael Thomas to put the Saints ahead 17-14. Thomas finished with 12 catches for 171 yards, a franchise playoff record.

While Thomas dominated on offense, it was fellow Ohio State alum Marshon Lattimore leading the way on defense.

Lattimore started the comeback with one interception then finished the Eagles off with another one. His second one, which bounced off the hands of Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery with 1:52 left, sealed the game and sent the boisterous announced crowd of 73,027 into a frenzy while dashing the hopes of last season's Super Bowl champions. The Eagles had driven to the Saints' 27-yard line.

"We played with some swag in the second half," Lattimore said.

Lattimore's first-half interception was just as important, breathing life into his team that trailed early after Nick Foles led the Eagles to touchdowns on their first two possessions.

The Saints capitalized on Lattimore's first pick, scoring on Brees' 2-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood on fourth-and-goal. It was one of two fourth-down conversions on the drive — the first came when Taysom Hill ran for a first down on fourth-and-1, taking a direct snap with the Saints lined up in punt formation.

"Each one of those is kind of calculated," Sean Payton said about the fake punt. "(Special teams coach) Mike Westhoff felt good about the look we were receiving. I trust Taysom a lot. He's a powerful runner, and generally the looks that are somewhat favorable also come with some risks."

A 45-yard Wil Lutz field goal late in the second quarter closed the Saints' deficit to 14-10 at halftime.

The Saints defense did the rest, holding the Eagles scoreless the final three quarters and allowing just 250 yards for the game after giving up 153 in the first quarter.

"We are never really looking at the scoreboard," said Saints linebacker Demario Davis, who recorded a team-high eight tackles. "We just try to stay true to our goals. We know what we need to do to be successful. They were able to run the ball a little bit early on. We were able to stop the run. We knew we needed to find a way to create a takeaway and get some pressure on the quarterback and get off the field on third downs. When we started doing that, we were more successful."

Now the Saints advance to the NFC championship game for the third time in team history and first time since winning the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. This one wasn't pretty at the start, but Payton and the Saints will take it.  

"It wasn't a perfect game," Payton said. "Certainly there are a lot of things we'll have to clean up, but most importantly we got the win. Listen, we beat the defending champions, and that means something."


Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.