Sunday, January 05, 2014

Supporting cast lifts Saints over Eagles

By John McMullen

PHILADELPHIA - It was always going to follow the New Orleans Saints until, well ... it stopped following them.

Veteran kicker Shayne Graham checked his rear-view mirror, sped-up through a
red light and shook a rather persistent tail when he booted a game-winning
32-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Saints over the Philadelphia
Eagles, 26-24, in an NFC wild-card matchup on Saturday night.

It was the first road playoff win in franchise history after five consecutive
losses.

When Eagles first-year starting quarterback Nick Foles found rookie tight
Zach Ertz slipping off the line unnoticed to put the Eagles on top 24-23,
Drew Brees had 4 1/2 minutes to erase a narrative which has defined him and
his organization for years.

Brees did convert two key third downs with a pair of quarterback sneaks on the
ensuing Saints' possession but it was his supporting cast of Darren Sproles,
Mark Ingram, the little-used Khiry Robinson, and Graham that did the heavy
lifting.

The journeyman Graham, who replaced long-time kicker Garrett Hartley after
Week 15, finally ended New Orleans' road playoff curse by calmly kicking
the game-winner in a raucous environment.

Brees finished  20-of-30 for 250 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions,
while Ingram carried the ball 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown.

"It's just, man, believing in each other, ignoring what everyone else has to
say," a relieved Brees said.

The Saints' well-documented troubles away from the Superdome have been a sore
spot for Sean Payton and Co. but they were real ... very real.

New Orleans arrived in Philadelphia with more talent, more experience and a
better record than the Eagles. Ask your average NFL observer and he or she
probably would have picked the Saints in a rout if this game was being played
on neutral turf, never mind the Superdome.

But, the Saints aren't the same team when you take them off the fast track in
New Orleans as evidenced by their 8-0 record as the host during the regular
season versus their 3-5 mark as the visitor. NOLA often forgets to pack its
high-powered offense when leaving the Bayou, averaging 34 points per game in
Cajun Country compared to 16.9 in strange area codes.

And then you have Brees, the brilliant future Hall of Fame quarterback
who has four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. The
Purdue product has tossed 25 touchdown passes and just three interceptions
when playing at home this season. After Saturday in Philly that number dips to
14 TDs and 13 picks whether he's rockin' the Dayquil or Nyquil in his hotel
room.

The Saints actually got a big break in City of Brotherly Love on Saturday
night. It wasn't the climate controlled nirvana of the dome but early
forecasts calling for a bitterly cold game with temperatures near 20 and the
wind chill dipping down in the single digits proved alarmist and things ended
up as run-of-the-mill cold, about 26 degrees at kickoff with negligible wind.

Brees wasn't able to take advantage early, making two key mistakes in the
opening half, first getting greedy midway through the first quarter and badly
underthrowing rookie Kenny Stills down the right sideline, an ill-advised pass
that Eagles CB Bradley Fletcher picked off at Philadelphia's 3-yard line.

Two possessions later Brees failed to recognize DeMeco Ryans drooping off into
zone coverage and the veteran linebacker undercut Lance Moore for another
pick.

The Eagles weren't exactly lighting things up themselves but Foles's 10-yard
TD pass to Riley Cooper with just under two minutes to go until intermission
made sure Philadelphia went in the locker room with a lead, which turned out
to be 7-6 when Graham foreshadowed the end of the game by closing the second
quarter with a 46-yard field goal.

After 30 minutes of football Brees had completed just 10-of-18 passes for 98
yards with the two picks and a miserable 31.5 passer rating. Foles was hardly
spectacular himself but perhaps the key statistic was he made no significant
errors while Brees has the two miscues.

Payton didn't panic, however, and decided to take some of the load off of
Brees' shoulders by feeding Ingram, who did an excellent job as New Orleans'
feature back in place of the injured Pierre Thomas. After the New Orleans
defense forced a three-and-out, Sproles' 12-yard punt return gave the
Saints' excellent field position at their own 47.

Ingram carried the ball on three of the Saints' first four plays on the
ensuing drive, amassing 24 yards as New Orleans advanced to the Philadelphia
22. A holding penalty set the Saints back but Brees had the answer, first
going underneath to Sproles for eight yards before hitting Moore for a 24-yard
score.

After another Eagles three-and out, Brees was feeling it, tossing a brilliant
14-yard out to Stills that showed a feathery touch just over the outstretched
hand of big-play man Brandon Boykin, That set the table for a 27-yard hookup
with Benjamin Watson before Ingram took it in from the 4-yard line a few plays
later to give New Orleans a 20-7 edge with just under four minutes to go in
the third quarter.

Nothing is ever easy for the Saints away from the Superdome, though, and
Philadelphia found life on its next drive when the Saints' best corner, Keenan
Lewis, blew up a poorly thrown Foles pass to Jason Avant. Lewis suffered a
possible concussion while delivering a monster hit on the play, a development
which opened up things outside the numbers for the Eagles.

The play after Lewis left Foles lofted a 50-50 ball deep down the right side
for DeSean Jackson and the speedy receiver made the catch at the New Orleans
nine. Moments later LeSean McCoy plunged in on 4th-and-1 from the one.

Alex Henery and Graham exchanged field goals from there before Foles was
back at it, throwing another 50-50 to Jackson, This one resulted in a 40-yard
pass interference call on Corey White, which gave the Eagles the ball at the
NOLA 4-yard line. Two plays after that, Foles found Ertz and New Orleans was
on the clock.

Sproles answered with a 39-yard kick return,  accentuated by a 15-yard
personal foul on Philadelphia's Cary Williams for a horse collar tackle.
Smelling blood, Payton kept it on the ground, running on eight of nine plays
before Graham stepped up and played hero.

"We know what we're all about," Sproles said. "This was a great testament to
that. Coming on the road, hostile environment, great team, one of the hottest
teams in football and getting one of those big victories."

The prize?

A few hours of satisfaction and a ticket to the NFL's toughest venue,
Seattle's CenturyLink Field, the same place where the Saints lost 34-7 just
over a month ago.

This time, though, New Orleans will head to the Pacific Northwest with some
history of its own.

"It's loud, it's crazy, they've got a good thing going there," Brees said when
talking about the Seahawks.

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