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John DeShazier: Saints blaze a playoff trail with win in Philadelphia

Posted Jan 5, 2014

26-24 wild-card triumph makes history for franchise

Philadelphia – From grins to green Gatorade, sweat suits to sauce, Popeye’s to pumped volume, the New Orleans Saints left for Philadelphia a different way, and came home a different team.

A winning, history-making team.

The Saints walked onto Lincoln Financial Field having lost their last three road regular-season games, and walked off it with a 26-24, wild-card playoff victory Saturday night, the first road playoff victory in franchise history, sealed on Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal as time expired.

“We didn’t carry any of the baggage of any past teams (onto the field against the Eagles),” safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

That may be true in the minds of the men who altered the routine last week and became a loose, smiling bunch who changed Gatorade flavors, ordered new sweat suits, vowed to change the sauce for the pregame Beefy Mac, chomped on Popeye’s chicken and practiced to the sound of music – pulsating rap and hip-hop.

But these Saints (12-5) could not separate themselves until Saturday night from the previous five Saints teams that had tried and failed to win a road playoff game. They could not become trailblazers until they blazed the trail.

Now, the 2013 team always will occupy a special place in Saints history, having done what no other New Orleans team has, having done it at an outdoor venue, in the cold (25 degrees, wind chill 19), against an Eagles team that had won seven of its last eight games and four straight at home.

The victors presented a game ball to team owner Tom Benson, under whom the franchise has played all of its playoff games.

He watched his team handle the Eagles (10-7) at the line of scrimmage, taking away Philadelphia’s vaunted running game while bullying the Eagles with their own run game.

The Eagles led the NFL during the regular season with 160 rushing yards per game; they finished with half of that, on 3.6 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Saints had more rushing attempts (36) than passing attempts (30) for the first time this season, and totaled 185 rushing yards (5.1 per attempt) and a touchdown.

“Obviously, it was a big win for us,” Coach Sean Payton said. “You look at some of these numbers … I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage and really controlled, for the most part, third downs. And that is a good football team. I thought we eliminated on defense, for the most part, the big plays.

“They hit a few, they are very talented, but I thought our guys responded really well.” New Orleans Saints

New Orleans was strong enough, in fact, to overcome the exact obstacles that had proven to be so troublesome on the road during the regular season. In its five losses, all away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans averaged two turnovers and seven penalties per game. It held true to form against Philadelphia – two turnovers and seven penalties.

But the sixth-seeded Saints held the third-seeded Eagles to 256 yards, stopped them on nine of 12 third-down attempts, rolled up 434 yards and got four field goals from the recently signed Shayne Graham, another franchise playoff first.

Graham, who was unemployed for the first 14 regular-season games, avoided watching NFL games on television, couldn’t watch because he so desperately wanted to be playing.

Saturday, in his third game as a Saint, he was perfect on field-goal attempts from 36, 46, 35 and 32 yards to help the Saints advance to the divisional playoff round. New Orleans will play in Seattle on Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 3:25 p.m. CST.

“I thought it was exceptional,” Payton said of Graham. “It was fantastic, in a big spot. Every kick he hit was clean and obviously in a playoff football game, those things matter.”

The kicks helped the Saints erase the talk of having stumbled to a 3-5 mark on the road this regular season, after having started the season 2-0 on the road.

“As much as we hate hearing that talk, we kind of put that on ourselves,” said quarterback Drew Brees (20 for 30 for 250 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions).

Now, they’ve shed that cloak.

After a scoreless first quarter the Saints opened the scoring in the second, with Graham’s 36-yard field goal capping an 11-play, 43-yard drive to give New Orleans a 3-0 lead with 8:37 left in the first half.

The Saints' defense forced a three-and-out and the offense drove from its 32 to the Eagles' 41-yard line. But on second-and-7, Brees was intercepted by linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who returned it 23 yards to the Saints’ 44-yard line. Six plays later, on third-and-9 from the Saints 10-yard line, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles found receiver Riley Cooper in the end zone to give Philadelphia a 7-3 lead with 1:48 left.

But the Saints answered with a drive to siphon off some of the momentum the Eagles had gained. Brees led the offense on an eight-play, 47-yard drive that ended on Graham’s 46-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter, pulling New Orleans to within 7-6 at halftime.

The defense stiffened more in the third quarter, forcing Eagles three-and-outs on consecutive possessions. Each time, the Saints produced a touchdown drive.

Brees combined with Lance Moore on a 24-yard touchdown pass to complete a six-play, 53-yard drive and running back Mark Ingram (18 carries, 97 yards) finished off the next touchdown drive – eight plays, 66 yards – with a 4-yard run that gave the Saints a 20-7 lead with 3:54 left in the third.

The Eagles bounced back with their second scoring drive, a seven-play, 65-yarder that was completed by LeSean McCoy’s 1-yard touchdown run to pull Philadelphia to within 20-14. After the Eagles forced a punt, the teams swapped field goals – a 31-yarder by Philadelphia’s Alex Henery and a 35-yarder by Graham – to keep New Orleans’ lead at six points, 23-17.

But the Eagles then posted their most impressive offensive drive – eight plays, 77 yards, capped by Foles’ 3-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, giving the Eagles a 24-23 lead with 4:54 left.

From there, New Orleans put together the drive that ended the franchise’s playoff winless streak on the road.

Darren Sproles returned the kickoff 37 yards to the New Orleans 39-yard line, and Philadelphia was penalized 15 yards for a horse-collar tackle on the play. With two timeouts, the Saints began the possession at the Eagles' 48-yard line with 4:44 left.

Three consecutive runs produced 15 yards. On second-and-7 from the Eagles 33, Brees completed a 6-yard pass to Marques Colston and after the Eagles used their second timeout, Brees executed a quarterback sneak for three yards and the first down, to the 24-yard line.

Robinson ran for four yards on first down, the Eagles used their final timeout, and he ran for five yards to the 15 before Brees executed another sneak, for a yard, to give the Saints a first down and total control.

New Orleans ran another play (another Brees run, to set the ball in the middle of the field), called timeout with three seconds left and put the outcome on Graham’s foot. And for the fourth time, he was true.

“This was probably one of the most comfortable feelings I’ve ever had, probably in my whole career,” Graham said. “For some reason, I didn’t feel one ounce of hesitation, fear or anxiety. We had been getting a lot of reps on field goals the whole night and I hit the ball well in pregame and during the half.

“Our offense did a great job out there and put us in great position. It was great to be out there and sealing the victory.”

The next challenge will be to do the same thing against the No. 1 seed, Seattle, in a venue where the Seahawks dominated the Saints 34-7 earlier this season.

“Having another crack at them, obviously, I look forward to this week of preparation,” Brees said. “I look forward to the plan that we’re going to put together. They’re a great football team.

“We’re going to need our best effort to beat these guys, but if there’s a team that can do it, I believe that’s us.”

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