No NFL team was a bigger favorite this weekend than the New Orleans Saints, and none of the four winners in the Divisional Round looked more mortal. The Philadelphia Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter with the Saints looking out of sorts on both sides of the ball.
Then the New Orleans defense buckled down, and the offense started chipping away at the Eagles’ lead.
Philadelphia never scored again and blew its chance to win in the final minutes when a Nick Foles pass went through the hands of Alshon Jeffery and was intercepted. It closed the book on a 20-14 win for the Saints and booked the team a trip to the NFC Championship.
The Saints have had better days offensively, but they showed exactly what they do best with a demoralizing 18-play drive that took nearly the entire third quarter. It ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas that gave New Orleans its first lead of the day.
The drive took 11 minutes, 29 seconds and showed exactly what makes the Saints defense so difficult to stop.
It was efficiency, not explosiveness, that killed the Eagles
The Saints entered halftime down 14-10 and opened the third quarter by forcing a quick punt from the Eagles. Then they just kicked the Philadelphia defense’s ass for the remainder of the quarter.
Just look at this masterpiece.
I mean, look at this drive pic.twitter.com/0o47luE6g2— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) January 14, 2019
There were a pair of 20-yard passes to Thomas on the play and a 15-yard run for Alvin Kamara. But that was as big as the plays got for the Saints. They just slowly and patiently chipped away at the Eagles until they were on the doorstep.
It was the second longest drive in playoff history:
The @Saints took the lead thanks to an 18-play, 92-yard TD drive.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 14, 2019
That drive had the 2nd most plays by any team on a TD drive in the playoffs since 1999.
Only the Cowboys in the 2007 NFC Divisional Round vs the Giants had a longer TD drive --- 20 plays.
The Saints overcame two holding penalties on the 92-yard drive — one of which nullified a touchdown pass by Taysom Hill — and a false start to finish in the end zone.
The drive set the tone for the Saints offense in the remainder of the game. In the fourth quarter, the worn-out Eagles defense gave up a 62-yard drive that ended with a field goal, a 41-yard drive that ended with a missed field, and a first down to Kamara on the final drive that was the dagger.
That’s what the Saints do best
For as great as the New Orleans offense has been all year, it’s only been slightly above average when it comes to explosiveness:
Efficiency defines the Saints. The team had only seven pass plays during the regular season that went for over 40 yards. Nineteen teams had more. It only had one rushing play that went for at least 40.
The Saints are led by quarterback Drew Brees who keeps finishing seasons with completion percentages higher than any other passer has ever come close to recording. And New Orleans finished the regular season with the sixth-most rushing yards in the NFL.
When the Saints are playing their best football, they aren’t torching teams with 80-yard bombs. They’re tearing out hearts with grinding drives that never end.
The Saints can’t afford to have another slow start if they hope to beat the Los Angeles Rams and earn a trip to Super Bowl 53. But if New Orleans can grind away at the Rams the same way they did for the entire third quarter against the Eagles, they’ll be in good shape.