NEW ORLEANS – The Saints outlasted Nick Foles and a disastrous first quarter to bring the NFC title game back to the Superdome for the first time since their Super Bowl-winning 2009 season.
The 20-14 outcome was far less assured than the 48-7 throttling the Saints had dealt the Eagles 56 days earlier.
But Drew Brees rebounded from an interception on his opening pass, the Saints secondary shored up leaky early coverage to snag two interceptions and New Orleans held on after the team took its first lead with 1:44 to go in the third. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore hauled in an interception in the closing minutes to seal the game after a pass went through the hands of Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
The Saints will host the Los Angeles Rams with “home dome” advantage in the NFC title game at 3:05 p.m. ET next Sunday.
Here are three things we learned in the Saints’ win:
1. Don’t bet against Drew Brees and Sean Payton in the postseason at the Superdome
The decibel levels hushed quickly after Brees’ opening interception, just his second at the Superdome all year and sixth total in this campaign. A 30-yard, 2-for-6 first quarter left the Saints signal-caller with an 11.1 passer rating. A fumbled snap, twice-overturned strip-sack and delay of game didn’t help matters. But Brees was consistent and effective in guiding the Saints the remaining three quarters, from a 42-yard pass after a fake punt in the second quarter, to quick darts spread between multiple receivers in the end zone. He steadily overtook the Eagles with a drive stretching 11:29 of the third quarter, the longest in NFL postseason history since 2000, per ESPN Stats and Info. Brees didn’t turn the ball over on his last 37 attempts. He maintained his perfect postseason record at the Superdome, now a string of six straight with a chance for No. 7 next week.
2. Foles magic runs out at the hand of Saints D
It was there, all right. The defending Super Bowl MVP, playing his first game at the Superdome this season (Carson Wentz quarterbacked the 48-7 loss before fracturing his back), came out hot. Foles completed eight of nine passes for 113 yards in the first quarter, both throwing and rushing for touchdowns. Saints cornerback P.J. Williams oddly stopped trailing Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews on Foles’ passing touchdown, a 37-yard cross-body dart to the left side of the end zone. He found Alshon Jeffery in air down the right sideline for 30 yards the next drive. Two plays later, balancing atop his offensive linemen on his right hip, Foles stretched for the Eagles’ second score. But Foles didn’t manage 100 yards in the remaining three quarters combined. He couldn’t score again, even though the Saints lost pass-rushing force Sheldon Rankins in the first quarter to what they believe is a season-ending torn Achilles, per reports. And Foles threw two costly interceptions, the second effectively sealing a New Orleans win with 2:01 to play.
3. Michael Thomas is a stud, again
The Saints’ leading receiver – 1,409 yards, nine scores in regular season – caught balls anywhere and everywhere as he racked up 171 yards on 12 catches, including the 2-yard touchdown reception that gave New Orleans its first lead of the game with 1:44 to play in the third quarter. Thomas also caught consecutive short passes before Brees’ first score (a 2-yard touchdown to Keith Kirkwood) and followed a momentum-changing Saints punt with a 42-yard pass, half the distance of which came after the catch. Thomas was a reliable, productive and explosive target for Brees throughout the game. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram pitched in key runs, but Thomas was the difference maker Sunday.
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.