Knocking out the Super Bowl champs is supposed to be hard

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It’s not supposed to be easy.

And this one wasn’t.

Winning an NFL Divisional Playoff is hard. It’s especially hard when you’re playing a team that’s fighting to defend its Super Bowl championship, a team that won its last three regular-season games to squeeze into the playoffs, then went into Chicago and upset a heavily favored division champion.

So even though the New Orleans Saints were 13-3 and had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles 48-7 eight weeks earlier, it was no surprise that the NFC’s highest seed’s 20-14 win over the conference’s lowest seed on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was hard.

Really hard.

“Listen,” Saints coach Sean Payton said afterward, “we beat the defending champions and that means something.”

Most of all it means the Saints are in the NFC Championship Game for just the third time in their 52 seasons. They’ll host the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LIII.

Philadelphia zipped to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter and New Orleans was staggered, but still standing.

“We were calm, we were poised, we knew we were going to get things going,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “But obviously we had to do that quickly.”

They got things going in the second quarter.

It started when cornerback Marshon Lattimore leaped to snag a pass from Nick Foles before it could reach tight end Zach Ertz at the New Orleans 21.

“I probably needed to throw that one about a foot higher,” Foles said.

The Saints were about three feet shy of a first down on the ensuing possession when they faked a punt and Taysom Hill gained four yards.

“We knew that we needed to create some momentum for ourselves,” Hill said.

They faced fourth down again later in the drive at the Eagles’ 2. Coach Sean Payton passed on a field goal and Brees passed to Keith Kirkwood for a touchdown.

“If you don’t have a play you like,” Brees said, “you don’t go for it.”

“They definitely earned that one,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a former Saint.

Wil Lutz’s 45-yard yard field goal got New Orleans within four points at halftime and the Saints finally took the lead on Brees’ 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas at the end of an epic third-quarter drive.

They covered 92 yards – 117, Brees pointed out, if you count the penalty yards that pushed the Saints back along the way – in 18 plays, requiring 11 minutes and 29 seconds.

“That is a sign of a great offense,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “You hold the ball and control it and then score.”

Thomas finished with 12 catches for 171 yards.

“He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays when you need it most,” Brees said, “and he did that today.”

“It’s win or go home,” Thomas said. “If you are double or triple teamed, it doesn’t matter. You just have to do your job.”

The Saints added a 33-yard field goal by Lutz for a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, but when he was wide right from 52 – just his third miss in a record-breaking season – the lead was precarious.

It was impossible not to think the Super Bowl champs were destined for another remarkable comeback a week after Bears kicker Cody Parkey’s potential game-winner bounced off the left upright, then the crossbar before landing in the Soldier Field end zone and sending the Eagles to New Orleans.

“I thought we were on our way,” Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson said.

It sure looked that way when Foles connected with Ertz for 16 yards and Saints rookie end Marcus Davenport was called for roughing the passer.

Then Foles’ pass to Alshon Jeffery bounced off of Jeffery’s hands and into Lattimore’s hands. Moments later, Kamara was running for a first down, Brees was kneeling and the Saints were advancing.

“It wasn’t a perfect game,” Payton said, “but we made enough plays.”

Lattimore made two of the biggest, which linebacker Demario Davis called a “trump card.”

The Saints had to play all their cards.

Brees threw an interception on the first play of the game.

On the ensuing possession, Foles completed all five of his passes, the last being a 37-yard touchdown to Jordan Matthews.

The Saints went three and out and Foles drove the Eagles to his 1-yard touchdown run.

Then Lattimore played his first trump card.

“It kind of changed after that,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.

It sure did.

After Philadelphia gained 151 yards on the touchdown drives, New Orleans allowed just 99 on the remaining eight and held the champs scoreless over the final 49:36.

“We just had to settle down,” Lattimore said. “We played with some swag in the second half.”

“That was not the way we wanted to start,” Brees said, “but to overcome that I think is the story here.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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