NEW ORLEANS — Michael Thomas said he felt himself “get a different type of heartbeat.”
Not on account of any of the Saints receiver’s 12 catches, 171 yards or go-ahead touchdown in New Orleans’ 20-14 divisional win over the Eagles.
No, Thomas said, his heart shifted rhythm the first time Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore intercepted Nick Foles on Sunday.
Thomas was locked in. With his team down 14-0 in the second quarter, he turned to quarterback Drew Brees with a message.
“I didn’t want him to get frustrated or panicked,” Thomas said of Brees, who on the opening pass of the game threw his second interception at the Superdome this season. “I wanted to prove to him if he let the ball go, I’ll take care of myself.
“After Marshon got the pick, I was like, ‘Man, I’ll take over this whole drive for you right now.’”
First there was the 21-yard throw from Brees immediately following a successful fake punt. Thomas doubled his distance with another 21 yards after the catch to flip the field and continue the Saints’ drive.
Then there were the short passes up the middle for 4 and 9 yards, respectively, immediately preceding the team’s first score.
And a 2-yard dart capped off an 11:29 drive that finally, nearly three quarters of the contest elapsed, gave the Saints their first lead of the afternoon.
“You just got to keep swinging,” Thomas said. “Keep swinging, keep swinging until you knock them out.”
It was far from the knockout performance the Saints enjoyed in their 48-7 win over the Eagles in November. But Brees put a 30-yard, 2-for-6 first quarter behind him to complete 28 of 39 passes for 301 yards and two scores. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram each rushed for at least 50 yards, the one-two punch gashing the Eagles for long runs of 15 and 36 yards respectively. And Thomas kept coming back to swing again.
“It’s Mike T: ‘Can’t guard mike’ is the (name of his) Twitter handle,” quipped defensive end Cam Jordan. “He’s lived up to all expectations, has he not?”
The Saints defense did, too. Nick Foles scored a passing and rushing touchdown in his 8-of-9, 113-yard passing clinic first quarter that stood in stark contrast to Brees’ start. Then Foles failed to compile 100 yards combined in the next three quarters. The Eagles group that converted both third-down attempts in the first quarter was denied on all five of its subsequent opportunities.
“And it’s not about how you start,” Jordan said, asking a reporter to complete his thought.
“It’s about how you finish,” the reporter replied, Jordan smiling as he eyed a pair of silver-spiked cleats with illustrations of red-and-blue boxers Mike Tyson and Angel Rivera.
Jordan knocked one cleat down from the wooden cubby of his locker the first time he was asked what message the Saints sent by toppling the Eagles.
“A little knockout? What?” Jordan asked. “They say I can’t lose, I say you can’t win?”
He knocked the second down on the next question before turning back to a gaggle of cameras.
“We all knew it was going to be a fight,” Jordan said. “We all knew were going to get their best punch.”
Foles got the Saints’ best punch, too, as the Eagles were sent home when Lattimore grabbed a second interception with 2:01 to play.
“Just felt like it was a dagger in their heart,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “It was a good feeling.”
It wasn’t the dagger the Eagles’ 14-0 first quarter portended. But it was the one that Lattimore and Thomas, who were teammates at Ohio State, were glad to deliver.
“We really locked in and turned up,” Lattimore said. “We played with some swag.”
Thomas hopes to carry that swag into a rematch with the Rams next week, two months after exploding for 12 catches, 211 yards, a touchdown and a flip-phone celebration in the teams’ first matchup.
The game-changing receiver’s goals then?
No flip phone, he said, confirming that nod-to-history celebration has been retired.
The 12 catches he snagged against the Rams, and again to advance past the Eagles on Sunday, don’t leave him satisfied either.
“I just wish I caught all the passes,” said Thomas, who was targeted on 16 passes. “That’s going to be my goal for next week.
“I want to be that safety blanket for Drew. I want to be that supporting cast for him. I want him to be able to be back there and play his game and be calm and know he has a guy he can trust in.”
On Sunday, Brees did.
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.