NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees reached back and chucked the ball downfield, just as he had been doing all season. There was no reason to think this particular pass wouldn’t end up like most of the others he’d thrown, in the hands of a Saints receiver. And on the first play of the game, it certainly would set the tone.
Except this time it was picked off by Philadelphia’s Cre’Von LeBlanc. Then the Eagles scored a touchdown. Then another. And all of a sudden, it seemed as if Brees and the top-seeded Saints were going to be facing the long offseason while the Eagles and their magical backup quarterback would be advancing.
For a while, New Orleans felt like The Big Uneasy.
But the Saints, a team that had played from ahead for most of the year thanks to its high-powered offense, weren’t done yet. They erased a 14-point deficit after a shaky first quarter and beat the Eagles, 20-14, in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at the Superdome.
Brees completed 28 of 38 passes for 301 yards — 12 of those going to Michael Thomas for 171 yards and a touchdown — to lead the Saints’ comeback.
“We were calm, we were poised,” Brees said. “We knew we were going to get things going. That’s not the way we wanted to start, but to overcome that, I think, is the story here.”
The Saints will host the No. 2 Rams in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, with each team one step away from a Super Bowl that will crown a different champion this season.
“There are certainly a lot of things we’ll have to clean up,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But listen, [we beat] the defending champs, and that means something when you are able to beat a team like that.”
In a city known for a smooth rhythm and its ability to keep a straight beat, the Saints’ go-ahead drive was a thing of disjointed elegance. It took them 18 official plays (plus four offensive penalties, so really 22 snaps) to go 92 yards in 11:29.
The Superdome rocked with excitement for not just one but two touchdowns, the first a 46-yard pass to Alvin Kamara that was negated by a holding penalty against Andrus Peat.
The Saints faced third-and-3, second-and-20, third-and-16 and first-and-15 in the possession, overcoming all of them before Brees hit Thomas for a 2-yard touchdown and a 17-14 lead.
Thomas caught four passes for 53 yards on the drive, including two 20-yard receptions with at least 16 yards to go. “We have a thing and it’s hard for the other team to stop,” he said of his connection with Brees. “When we come out there, we feel like no one can stop us.”
After allowing 151 yards and two touchdowns on the Eagles’ first two possessions, the Saints put the clamps on Nick Foles and Co., holding them to 99 yards on their final eight drives and keeping them off the scoreboard for the final 49:39. What started out looking as if it would be a defensive meltdown for the Saints wound up being one of the great defensive efforts in franchise history. The 14 points allowed tied a club low in the postseason.
Marshon Lattimore picked off a long pass by Foles on the fourth snap of the third drive early in the second quarter, and the Saints drove 79 yards on 12 plays to close the gap to 14-7. One of them was a fake punt from the Saints’ 30, with upback Taysom Hill taking the snap and charging ahead to pick up the first down.
The final play on the drive was gutsy, too. Rather than settling for a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2, Brees hit Keith Kirkwood for a touchdown.
The Saints’ defense ended the Eagles’ reign as Super Bowl champions with 1:52 left. The Eagles had just picked up a key first down on a roughing-the-passer penalty that brought them to the Saints’ 27 but inexplicably rushed to snap the ball before the two-minute warning. Foles’ pass for Alshon Jeffery went through his hands and was intercepted by Lattimore.
The loss not only eliminated the Eagles but might alter the franchise. Foles, who has started every postseason game the past two years, might become a free agent or be traded. Most think it’s unlikely that his next NFL snap will be for the Eagles.
“We’ll see what happens,’’ Foles said, “but I’ve enjoyed everything.”
Coach Doug Pederson sounded as if he was saying his goodbyes to Foles in a postgame conversation. “I just told him that I appreciate everything that he’s done,” Pederson said. “I just told him that I loved him.”
When the Saints hosted the Rams in the regular season, two of the best offenses in the NFL put on a high-scoring show:
At New Orleans
Saints 45, Rams 35
Drew Brees passed for 346 yards and four touchdowns, Alvin Kamara scored three TDs in the first half and Michael Thomas finished with a club-record 211 yards receiving. Thomas caught a late 72-yard touchdown on his 12th and final reception and then, in a tribute to former New Orleans receiver Joe Horn, celebrated with a cellphone that was planted in the padding of a goal post in the end zone. Rams QB Jared Goff passed for 391 yards and three TDs.