NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints are headed to the NFC Championship for the third time in their 52 seasons.
It wasn’t easy but the Saints overcame a 14-0 deficit to knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, 20-14, in an NFC Divisional Playoff on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They will host the Los Angeles Rams in the title game next Sunday. They’ll try to avoid the fate of the 2006 Saints, who lost the title game in Chicago, and duplicate the feat of the 2009 Saints, who beat Minnesota in the Dome on their way to their only Super Bowl title.
“That was not the way we wanted to start,” quarterback Drew Brees said of the two-touchdown deficit, “but to overcome that I think is the story here.”
Another story is that Marshon Lattimore made two crucial interceptions, matching his regular-season total. The first gave the team a much-needed lift when it looked as though the 14-0 deficit might get bigger and the second came when the Eagles were 27 yards from taking the lead in the final two minutes.
“We just had to settle down,” Lattimore said of the slow start. “We played with some swag in the second half.”
The story also is that Philadelphia gained 151 yards on the touchdown drives, but just 99 on the remaining eight as it went scoreless over the final 49:36.
Another big part of the story is Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas finished with 12 catches for 171 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown that gave New Orleans a 17-14 lead in the third quarter.
“He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays when you need it most,” Brees said, “and he did that today.”
On the go-ahead drive the Saints covered 92 yards – 117, Brees pointed out, if you count penalty yards along the way – in 18 plays, requiring 11 minutes and 29 seconds.
“That is a sign of a great offense,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “You hold the ball and control it and then score.”
The Saints added a 33-yard field goal by Wil Lutz for a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, but when he was wide right from 52 – just his third miss in a record-breaking season – the lead was shaky with nearly three minutes left.
“I thought we were on our way,” Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson said.
It sure looked that way when Nick Foles connected with Zach Ertz for 16 yards and Saints rookie end Marcus Davenport was called for roughing the passer.
Then Foles’ pass to Alshon Jeffery bounced off of Jeffery’s hands and into Lattimore’s hands. Moments later, Kamara was running for a first down, Brees was kneeling and the Saints were advancing.
“It wasn’t a perfect game,” Saints coach Payton said, “but we made enough plays.”
The Eagles made all the plays in the first quarter.
Brees threw an interception on the first play of the game.
On the ensuing possession, Foles completed all five of his passes, the last being a 37-yard touchdown to Jordan Matthews.
The Saints went three and out and Foles drove the Eagles to his 1-yard touchdown run.
“We were calm, we were poised, we knew we were going to get things going,” Brees said. “But obviously we had to do that quickly.”
Lattimore leaped to snag a pass from Foles before it could reach Ertz at the New Orleans 21.
“It kind of changed after that,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.
The Saints faced fourth and 1 when they faked a punt and Taysom Hill gained four yards.
“We knew that we needed to create some momentum for ourselves,” Hill said.
They faced fourth down again later in the drive at the Eagles’ 2 and Brees threw a touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood.
“If you don’t have a play you like,” Brees said, “you don’t go for it.”
Lutz’s 45-yard yard field goal got New Orleans within four points at halftime and they were on their way.
It was shaky all the way to the end, but the Saints will be playing next week and the Eagles won’t.
“Listen,” Payton said, “we beat the defending champions and that means something.”