Saints over­come shaky start

Brees erases 14-point lead to knock off de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - BARRY WIL­NER

When When the New Or­leans Saints fi­nally found their rhythm, they marched one step closer to the Su­per Bowl.

Us­ing a dom­i­nant ball-con­trol of­fence and a few gam­bles that paid off, the Saints got two touch­down passes from Drew Brees and two in­ter­cep­tions from Marshon Lat­ti­more in a 20-14 vic­tory over the Philadel­phia Ea­gles.

Brees took the Saints on scor­ing drives of 92, 79 and 67 yards after fall­ing be­hind 14-0. Lat­ti­more clinched it when Nick Foles’ pass from the Saints 27 de­flected off usu­ally sure-handed re­ceiver Al­shon Jef­fery with about two min­utes re­main­ing. A cou­ple dozen Saints play­ers surged off the side­line to­ward the end zone in cel­e­bra­tion, while Jef­fery fell face-first to the turf in agony. “We were real calm and poised and we knew we were go­ing to get things done,” Brees said.

New Or­leans (14-3) will host the NFC ti­tle game next week against the Rams (13-4). Los An­ge­les, which fell 45-35 at the Su­per­dome in Novem­ber, will try again next week, with the win­ner go­ing to the Su­per Bowl. The Saints’ win fin­ished off a sweep of the di­vi­sional round by teams com­ing off byes.

Wil Lutz added two field goals for the Saints, who last got this far in 2009, when they won the Su­per Bowl. Philadel­phia (10-8) will not re­peat as NFL cham­pion; no team has done so since the 2004 Pa­tri­ots.

“We were go­ing down to win, but I just felt like we beat our­selves, hon­estly,” Jef­fery said. “Hats off to those guys.”

This was re­ally two games in one. Philly scored on its first two drives as the Saints could do vir­tu­ally noth­ing right.

“Lis­ten, they got off to a fast start, they’re a great team,” Brees said. “Nick Foles has done a phe­nom­e­nal job for them. We knew it was go­ing to be dif­fer­ent than last time.”

After that open­ing pe­riod, it was all New Or­leans, yet the re­silient Ea­gles kept it close enough that when Lutz missed a 52-yard field goal with 2:58 re­main­ing, they were only onescore be­hind.

Foles, the hero of last year’s Su­per Bowl run, got them in po­si­tion for yet an­other late win­ning score — just like last week at Chicago and last Fe­bru­ary against New Eng­land for the cham­pi­onship. Then, Jef­fery couldn’t han­dle a sec­ond-down pass, and it was over.

“That’s a great cham­pi­onship team,” Saints coach Sean Pay­ton said of the Ea­gles. “We re­mained con­fi­dent.”

Brees had two-yard touch­down passes to rookie Keith Kirk­wood and All-Pro wide­out Michael Thomas, who had 12 re­cep­tions for a fran­chise play­off-record 171 yards. Thomas’ touch­down capped an 18-play, 92-yard drive in which the Saints ac­tu­ally cov­ered more than 100 yards be­cause of penal­ties. It lasted 111⁄ 2 min­utes.

“What you saw from him to­day is what I see ev­ery day in prac­tice,” Brees said of Thomas. “He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays.”

Philadel­phia had the ball for more than nine min­utes in the first quar­ter, after which the Ea­gles had the ball about 13 min­utes and never scored.

New Or­leans, which routed Philadel­phia 48-7 in Novem­ber, gam­bled on its first play — and lost. Brees was a bit short on a deep pass to Ted Ginn Jr., and it was picked off by Cre’Von LeBlanc, one of sev­eral Ea­gles back­ups be­ing used in the sec­ondary due to in­juries.

JONATHAN BACH­MAN GETTY IMAGES

New Or­leans’ Marshon Lat­ti­more had two in­ter­cep­tions against the Ea­gles on Sun­day. This one was dur­ing the sec­ond quar­ter.

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