NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees shared a curious statistic after his team defeated the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday: In the third quarter, with the Eagles ahead by 4 points, the Saints put together 23-play, 117-yard touchdown drive.
Yes, 117, if you include the penalties that forced the Saints to backtrack and regain lost yardage.
The long march down the field — which officially was listed as an 18-play, 92-yard drive — paid off when Brees hit wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 2-yard receiving touchdown that put the Saints ahead for good.
“That just was the tipping point, it turned the tide of the whole game,” Brees said of the 11-minute-29-second drive. “We knew everything after that was building a lead.”
The top-seeded Saints held on to win, 20-14, overcoming a slow start and a bundle of errors in their divisional-round game to set up a rematch against the second-seeded Los Angeles Rams next Sunday here in New Orleans.
The game started with the Eagles playing like Super Bowl champions. They scored two quick touchdowns to go up by 14-0 before the first quarter was over, quieting the raucous crowd of 73,027 at the Superdome.
But those were the only points the Eagles would score.
The Saints clawed back to 4 points behind at halftime, and then in the third quarter, Brees found his rhythm, conducting the epic drive that left the Eagles’ defense, already banged up from injuries, exhausted.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who looked like the magical, postseason version of himself on his team’s first two drives, was unable to muster much offense in the second half, struggling to communicate with his teammates amid the noise of the crowd.
“We think it’s a tremendous advantage to play here,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “It’s one of the reasons you fight for the best seed you can get. There’s an attribution to that noise. It’s all of the communication that strains you — not just on one play, but throughout the game.”
Brees faced no such concerns as he continued his dominance in New Orleans, where he remains undefeated in the playoffs. Brees found his favorite receiver, Thomas, early and often; Thomas had 12 receptions for 171 yards — including four catches on the 92-yard third quarter drive.
Next up for the Saints are the Rams. The Saints dealt them their first loss of the season at the Superdome with a 45-35 victory in November.
At least early in Sunday’s game, the odds of a Saints-Rams rematch looked slim. Brees threw an interception on the Saints’ first play of the game, as he tried to reach Ted Ginn Jr. streaking down the middle of the field. It was only his second interception this season at home.
Foles moved the Eagles down the field almost effortlessly on their first two drives to jump out to a 14-0 lead. He found Jordan Matthews for a 37-yard touchdown pass then scored from the 1 on a quarterback sneak for a second touchdown.
And he was driving the Eagles back down the field in the second quarter, seemingly on his way to giving Philadelphia a three-score lead. But Foles was intercepted by cornerback Marshon Lattimore to end the threat and, it turned out, swing the game’s momentum.
On the ensuing drive, the Saints pulled a rabbit out of a hat with a fake punt. The team’s utility star, quarterback Taysom Hill, lined up behind the center on fourth-and-1 in the Eagles’ half of the field, took the snap and ran 4 yards for a first down.
“It’s a gutsy call,” Hill said. “I wasn’t going to be denied.”
The Eagles’ woes were quickly compounded. Defensive lineman Fletcher Cox was hurt on the play, and hi s replacement, Treyvon Hester, jumped offside on the next snap, giving Brees a free play. He took advantage, hitting Thomas for a 42-yard pass. Seven plays later, on fourth-and-goal at the 2, Brees threw a touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood for the Saints’ first points.
“We felt we needed 7 there,” Payton said of his decision to go for the end zone instead of a field goal.
Though the scoreboard showed the teams just a few points apart for most of the game, the Eagles looked worn down in the second half, unable to mount a serious threat. The Saints, who averaged more than 31 points a game during the regular season, looked as if they were making up for lost time. Brees hit his receivers on the Saints’ end-to-end drive, including on a third-and-16 in which he evaded tacklers and bought himself time before finding Thomas
Saints kicker Wil Lutz added a field goal early in the fourth quarter to give the Saints a 6-point lead, but he missed another attempt with just under three minutes to give the Eagles one last chance. Foles moved the Eagles down to the Saints’ 27 just before the two-minute warning, but then a second-down pass went through the hands of Alshon Jeffery and was caught by Lattimore for his second interception of the game.
The Saints charged across the field to celebrate, while the crowd, sensing another party next weekend, erupted once again.
Brees and the Saints will now have to find a way to slow down an offense as potent as their own, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.