The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS–When the New Orleans Saints finally found their rhythm, they marched one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Using a dominant ball-control offence and a few gambles that paid off, the Saints got two touchdown passes from Drew Brees and two interceptions from Marcus Lattimore in a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brees took the Saints on scoring drives of 92, 79, and 67 yards after falling behind 14-0.
Lattimore clinched it when Nick Foles’ pass from the Saints’ 27 deflected off usually sure-handed receiver Alshon Jeffery with about two minutes to go.
A couple dozen Saints’ players surged off the sideline toward the end zone in celebration while Jeffery fell face-first to the turf in agony.
“We were real calm and poised, and we knew we were going to get things done,” Brees said.
New Orleans (14-3) will host the NFC title game next week against the L.A. Rams (13-4), who advanced with a 30-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night.
L.A., which fell 45-35 at the Superdome back in November, will try again this Sunday, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.
The Saints’ win yesterday finished off a sweep of the divisional round by teams coming off byes.
Wil Lutz added two field goals for the Saints, who last got this far in 2009, when they won the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, will not repeat as NFL champion; no team has done so since the 2004 Patriots.
“We were going down to win but I just felt like we beat ourselves honestly,” Jeffery said.
“Hats off to those guys.”
Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson thought his team was on its way on that final drive to pulling off another stunning comeback win.
“It just felt like the momentum at that point was in our favour,” he remarked.
“It’s been that way all season and we felt like that sort of magic was going to continue.”
This was really two games in one. Philly scored on its first two drives as the Saints could do virtually nothing right.
“Listen, they got off to a fast start, they’re a great team,” Brees said. “Nick Foles has done a phenomenal job for them.
“We knew it was going to be different than last time [we faced the Eagles].”
After that opening period, it was all New Orleans. Yet the resilient Eagles kept it close enough that when Lutz missed a 52-yard field goal with 2:58 left, they were only one-score behind.
Foles, the hero of last year’s Super Bowl run, got them in position for yet another late winning score–just like the previous week at Chicago and last February against New England for the championship.
But Jeffery couldn’t handle a second-down pass and it was over.
“That’s a great championship team,” Saints’ coach Sean Payton said of the Eagles.
“We remained confident.”
Brees had two-yard touchdown passes to rookie Keith Kirkwood and All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas, who had 12 receptions for a franchise playoff-record 171 yards.
Thomas’ touchdown capped an 18-play, 92-yard drive in which the Saints actually covered more than 100 yards because of penalties.
It lasted 11-and-a-half minutes.
“What you saw from him today is what I see every day in practice,” Brees said of Thomas.
“He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays.”
Philadelphia had the ball for more than nine minutes in the first quarter, after which the Eagles had the ball about 13 minutes and never scored.
New Orleans, which routed Philadelphia 48-7 in November, gambled on its first play–and lost.
Brees was a bit short on a deep pass to Ted Ginn Jr. and it was picked off by Cre’Von LeBlanc, one of several Eagles back-ups being used in the secondary due to injuries during the regular season.
“I just think we had to find our rhythm,” Brees said.
“I tried to take a shot on the first play,” he added. “Unfortunately, that didn’t work.”
After the first quarter, though, a lot worked for New Orleans.
Foles completed all five throws on a 76-yard drive capped by Jordan Matthews’ 37-yard TD catch.
The Eagles, who quickly fell behind 17-0 in that previous Superdome loss, suddenly led 7-0.
Not long after, a 75-yard drive–highlighted by a 30-yard pass to Jeffery–ended with Foles’ short leap over the goal line for a 14-0 edge.
Indeed, the visitors were in control until Lattimore picked off Foles’ deep throw to Zach Ertz.
The Saints showed plenty of moxie on their 79-yard march to a touchdown, faking a punt at their 30, with Taysom Hill running four yards for a first down.
They also went on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line and Philadelphia’s rapidly-depleting defence surrendered Kirkwood’s two-yard touchdown.
“When you just get that in guys’ minds that we’re going to be aggressive, that we’re going to play to win, it allows guys to relax and to cut loose,” Brees reasoned.
With Brees finding the range and his receivers finding loads of room to roam, New Orleans crept to 14-10 at halftime on Lutz’s 45-yard field goal.