TWO MORE FOR TITLE #2: Saints Eliminate Eagles 20-14, Advance to NFC Championship vs. Rams

Credit: Derick E. Hingle

By the time that the whistle blew at the end of the 1st quarter yesterday, the New Orleans Saints found themselves losing by two touchdowns to the visiting Philadelphia Eagles and were looking at an abrupt and sudden end to their season and goal of making it to the Super Bowl.

But when the game’s final whistle blew, the (14-3) Saints found themselves leaving the field with a hard-fought come-from-behind 20-14 victory over the now-former Super Bowl champion Eagles, and as a result are now just two more wins away from winning the franchise’s 2nd NFL title.

New Orleans will now advance to next week’s 2019 NFC Championship Game; where they will host their long-time conference rivals, the (14-3) Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; the winner advances to Super Bowl LIII (53) in Atlanta, Georgia. Kick-off is for 2:05 p.m. Central Time and will be broadcast nationally by FOX.

The Saints defeated the Rams during the 2018 NFL regular season in Week #9 (November 4, 2018) at the Superdome, by a score of 45-35.

As it turns out, the Black and Gold nearly missed the opportunity at hosting the NFC Championship, after a horrific start to the game. The Saints’ defense was awful in the 1st quarter, allowing 14 points and 153 yards as Philly cruised to an early two-score lead. But they managed to rally behind 18-year veteran quarterback Drew Brees and a stingy defense from the 2nd quarter on, which ultimately propelled them to victory. In the process, the Saints made themselves the 4th and final home team coming off a 1st-round playoff Bye to win their divisional match-up the following week.

The game’s biggest play, and the impetus for the Saints’ turnaround and eventual rally, came early in the 2nd quarter. With New Orleans in a 14-0 hole, Saints head coach Sean Payton ― in a bold move very reminiscent of the onside kick he successfully executed in Super Bowl XLIV almost a decade ago ― had the Saints’ special teams run a fake punt on 4th-down-and-1 from his own 30-yard line. Third-string quarterback and jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill ran for three yards and a 1st down, and from that moment on, the momentum of the game swung towards New Orleans.

The Saints offense subsequently finished off that drive with another bold play: a two-yard touchdown pass from Brees to rookie Keith Kirkwood on a 4th-down-and-2 call to bring the score to 14-7, and eventually, they entered the locker room at halftime trailing by a score of 14-10.

After forcing Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and the Philly offense to go 3-and-out to open the 2nd half, Brees engineered a methodical and time-consuming 18-play, 92-yard touchdown march that took nearly an entire quarter’s worth (a whopping 11 minutes and 29 seconds) of game time off the clock.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the longest post-season drive by any NFL team in the past 20 years. It was also the longest drive of any game (regular post-season) by New Orleans during the same timespan.

Brees ultimately hit 3rd-year superstar wide receiver Michael Thomas to give the Saints their first lead of the game at 17-14 near the end of the 3rd quarter, and the Saints defense took over, becoming ultimately the biggest difference-maker in the end.

Third-year kicker Wil Lutz made the score 20-14 with a 39-yard field goal in the 4th quarter but ended up missing a 52-yard attempt with 2:58 remaining, giving Philadelphia one last chance at winning the ballgame. But Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore made the save, intercepting a tipped pass by Foles intended for Eagles’ wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey with 1:52 to play, allowing the Black and Gold to earn a hard-fought victory. It was Lattimore’s 2nd interception of the game, to go along with his one of Foles late in the 1st quarter.

Credit: Derick E. Hingle

Brees finished with 301 passing yards and two touchdowns, while Thomas had 12 catches for 171 yards; both numbers established team playoff receiving records. Running back Alvin Kamara added 71 yards running the ball on 16 carries.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the magic of Foles ― who had been (4-0) in the two post-season playoffs coming into yesterday’s showdown ― finally ran out. Foles completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, but the Saints, along with the help of a deafening Superdome crowd that made it hard for the Eagles to hear, eventually rendered him almost entirely ineffective.

After scoring two touchdown drives on their first two possessions within the first 10 and a half minutes of the 1st quarter, the Eagles’ offense failed to score for the remaining 49 and a half minutes of the game. Additionally, they only gained a grand total of 97 yards in the last three quarters of the contest.

It was a phenomenal performance for the Saints defensive unit as a whole, despite the loss of 3rd-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles tendon in the 3rd quarter and will be out for the remainder of the playoffs and possibly into next season.

Now they’ll have to regroup quickly, as they prepare to face a dangerous, well-balanced Rams team that is as equally effective at running the ball as it is at throwing it. And they’re coming to the Superdome next Sunday looking for revenge. The Saints will be seeking to become the first team to beat Rams’ 2nd-year head coach Sean McVay, who has yet to be beaten twice in the same season since taking over their team.

Credit: Derick E. Hingle

McVay is considered an offensive mastermind ― much in the same manner as Sean Payton ― and he and the Rams will very likely take a markedly different approach against the Saints defense this time around. During their Week #9 loss to New Orleans at the Superdome, Los Angeles only ran the football 19 times. But in their 30-22 win over the Cowboys last Saturday night, the Rams virtually “ran it down their throats,” as they rushed 48 times against a worn-out Dallas defense; they didn’t even need to utilize their top-rated passing attack.

Back-up running back C.J. Anderson gained 125 yards on 23 carries, while Rams #1 All-Pro running back Todd Gurley gained an additional 115 yards on 16 carries. All told, Los Angeles rushed for a whopping 273 yards on the ground, which was the most rushing yards in a postseason game in the Rams’ entire franchise history.

Bottom line: the Rams will provide a tough matchup for the Saints in this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game; it’s expected to be another hard-fought game for the Black and Gold.

But after yesterday, New Orleans is now (6-0) at home in the playoffs under Payton and Brees ― who after eliminating the Eagles ― are only two more wins away from NFL Title #2.

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist and regularly appears on ESPN Radio New Orleans 100.3 FM “The Sports Hangover Show.” Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.

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