Extra Points: Supporting cast changes narrative for Saints
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - 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 late in the game, 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.
"We know what we're all about," Sproles added. "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 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.
"I can't really put a finger on every little thing," Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham said. "They made the right blocks and were champing at the bit to get every yard they could, We had to make a play and we just couldn't."
The prize for the Saints?
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 positive history.
"It's loud, it's crazy, they've got a good thing going there," Brees said when talking about his next trip.
01/05 00:45:04 ET