Michael Thomas’ warmup cleats for Sunday’s divisional round matchup with the Eagles read “I got the hook-up.” They were nearly as on-the-nose as his Twitter handle, @can’tguardmike.
In their first meeting this season two months ago, the Philadelphia defensive backs draped the NFL’s leading receiver in double-coverage, where Thomas still managed four catches for 92 yards and a score. Meanwhile, three other Saints caught touchdown passes and rookie Tre’Quan Smith had a career game, snagging 10 balls for 157 yards and a score in the 48-7 rout.
Entering Sunday’s postseason meeting, the Eagles knew they couldn’t defend Thomas the same way, and the third-year receiver dutifully made them pay, grabbing 12 catches for 171 yards — both Saints postseason records – as he helped fuel the Saints 20-14 comeback victory Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After a Saints first quarter that couldn’t have gone much worse — an interception, two punts and a 14-0 deficit — Thomas’ burst in the final three periods was the biggest spark in his team’s rise from the ashes. Though he said it was too soon after the game for him to properly diagnose how the Eagles tried to wrap him up this time around, he knew one thing for certain.
“Whatever they did, it didn’t work,” he said. “Whoever was in the way, I had to beat them, and when the ball was in the air, I had to catch it. That’s how I look at the game. When (Drew Brees) looks my way on third down, I’ve got to convert. I’ve got to make the play.
“I don’t pay attention to how they’re playing me. I just have to run my route, do my job and get open.”
Thomas outgained and outscored the Eagles in the final 45 minutes, making 10 catches for 141 yards and a go-ahead touchdown, while the Philadelphia offense managed just 97 yards in their three-quarter drought.
Thomas’ longest catch was, not-so-coincidentally, right after the Saints’ first sign of life. After Taysom Hill bulldozed through the line on a fake-punt, quarterback Drew Brees connected with his favorite wideout for a 42-yard pickup. Then, in the red zone, the Saints reeling from a false start call on first-and-goal, the duo connected on a pair of completions on second and third downs, setting up fourth-and-2, where New Orleans scored its first points with Keith Kirkwood’s 2-yard touchdown grab.
And during the momentum-changing drive of the afternoon that spanned 11:29 in the third quarter, Thomas set the tone with three first downs and a touchdown on his four grabs for 53 yards. He said that faith from his veteran quarterback in those pressure-packed situations — ones where any smart opponent would know who Brees’ favorite target is — only helped elevate Thomas’ game.
“I didn’t want him to get frustrated or panicked. I want to prove to him that he could let the ball go and I could help him,” Thomas said. “I want to be that safety blanket for Drew. I want to be that supporting cast. I want him to be able to play his game, be back there and be calm and know he can trust me.”
He created great separation on the first, dashing for 8 yards after the catch on an 11-yard reception to the New Orleans 38. Brees then fired a dart to Thomas over the middle on second-and-20 right to the chains and into Philadelphia territory. On third-and-16 from the Eagles 32, it was Thomas’ cutback for an extra 6 yards that gave him a 20-yard pickup and the Saints a first-and-10 on the 12.
Fittingly, Brees found Thomas to cap the drive from 2 yards out to give the Saints their first lead, 17-14. It was just his second score since the teams’ Week 11 meeting.
“I have so much trust and confidence in him,” Brees said. “He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays when you need him the most.”