Kickoff for the NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams is at 2:05 p.m. Sunday.
To get to the Super Bowl, the Saints likely will need their defense to clock in then instead of waiting until around 2:30.
For whatever reason, a standout unit that held five consecutive opponents to 17 points or fewer from mid-November to mid-December, then shut out Philadelphia for the final three quarters of last week's 20-14 divisional-round victory, has struggled repeatedly at the start of games.
The Eagles scored touchdowns the first two times they had the ball, moving 76 yards in seven plays and 75 yards in 10 plays to put the Saints in an early hole they did not overcome until the fourth quarter.
“We just have to be locked in early, and we have to start fast,” cornerback P.J. Williams said. “Definitely coming off the bye week and also not playing much the week before, that might have made us start a little slow.”
Perhaps. But the Eagles followed in the footsteps of Carolina, the Rams in a Nov. 18 meeting, Minnesota the previous week and Tampa Bay in the season opener — all of whom scored two quick touchdowns against the Saints.
Carolina’s success was all but irrelevant because New Orleans already had clinched the No. 1 seed before that regular-season finale. But the numbers do not lie.
In 17 games, the Saints have allowed eight touchdowns and a field goal on their opponents’ first possession.
A slow defensive start against the Bucs in the opener, a 48-40 loss, set the tone for the year. Tampa Bay scored on a 58-yard reception by DeSean Jackson on its first possession, then drove 75 yards in six plays for a touchdown the next time it had the ball.
The Saints are undefeated in the eight games when they held an opponent scoreless on its first series.
“Starting fast is an emphasis every game, and unfortunately in some situations and some of the games we haven’t been able to,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “It’s a momentum game, but we have to move on to the next play.”
It is hard to explain the late wake-up calls since the Saints finished in the top half of the NFL in yards allowed and scoring defense during the regular season, ranking 14th in both categories.
They were not as effective right after the opening kickoff. Williams blamed himself for the issues against the Eagles, saying he lost the ball in the lights when Nick Foles lofted a 37-yard scoring toss to Jordan Matthews.
But the breakdowns have come across the board.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 46 of 63 throws for 636 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions on the games' first possession, earning an astonishing passer rating of 136.7 — not too far away from the NFL maximum of 158.3.
In contrast, Tampa Bay, which had the league’s worst pass defense, allowed a quarterback rating of 110.9 for the full season. Drew Brees led all quarterbacks with a rating of 115.7.
Even the normally stellar run defense has been much less sturdy at the beginning of games. The Saints, who finished second in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (3.6), gave up 248 yards on 52 carries (4.8 per attempt) during opening drives.
“I don’t know why it’s been like that,” rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport said. “I can’t really put it on anything. That is something we are working to improve on.”
Coach Sean Payton said he emphasized preventing a team from getting two first downs on its opening possession, thereby flipping the field position in the opponent's favor.
By that analysis, the Saints defense has been successful at the start of only two of their last 12 games, forcing a three-and-out in their 48-7 rout of the Eagles and limiting Pittsburgh to one first down.
Still, the Saints do not appear overly concerned about the past.
“Every game is different,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “We just try to play a game that’s in front of us. Sometimes you start fast, sometimes you start slow. Sometimes it's kind of even keel on both ends. You just have to be able to play good complementary football.”
For most of this season, equally fast starts from the offense mitigated the problem. Against the Eagles, though, Brees threw an interception on the first snap and the Saints went three-and-out on their second series, leading to the early 14-0 deficit.
Those struggles followed a three-game stretch when the Saints scored a total of six points in the first halves against Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
If the offense is just as sluggish early Sunday and the defense is not ready at kickoff, the explosive Rams could make life even more difficult than the Eagles did.
“It’s hard to play from behind in this league, especially against some guys that can get after the passer because you have to throw the ball a little bit more to come back," tackle Terron Armstead said. "A fast start is a big emphasis for us every week. We have to come out rolling from the first whistle.”