On to NFC ti­tle game

Saints one step closer to Su­per Bowl af­ter han­dling Ea­gles.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

NEW OR­LEANS — When the New Or­leans Saints fi­nally found their rhythm, they got one step closer to the Su­per Bowl.

Us­ing a dom­i­nant ball-con­trol of­fense and a few gam­bles that paid off, the Saints got two touch­down passes from Drew Brees and two in­ter­cep­tions from Mar­cus 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.

Brees had 2-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 11½ 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.”

New Or­leans will host the NFC Cham­pi­onship Game on Sun­day against the Rams with the win­ner go­ing to the Su­per Bowl. The Saints’ vic­tory 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 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.”

Ea­gles Coach Doug Ped­er­son thought his team was on its way on that fi­nal drive to pulling off an­other stun­ning come­back win

“It just felt like the mo­men­tum at that point was in our fa­vor,” he said. “It’s been that way all sea­son, and we felt like that sort of magic was go­ing to con­tinue.”

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 one score 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.”

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 in­ter­cepted by Cre’Von LeBlanc, one of sev­eral Ea­gles back­ups be­ing used in the sec­ondary due to in­juries dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“I just think we had to find our rhythm,” Brees said. “I tried to take a shot on the first play. Un­for­tu­nately, that didn’t work.”

Af­ter the first quar­ter, though, a lot worked for New Or­leans.

Foles com­pleted all five throws on a 76-yard drive capped by Jor­dan Matthews’ 37-yard TD catch. The Ea­gles, who quickly fell be­hind 17-0 in that pre­vi­ous Su­per­dome loss, sud­denly led 7-0.

Not long af­ter, a 75-yard drive high­lighted by a 30-yard pass to Jef­fery ended with Foles’ short leap over the goal line for a 14-0 edge.

The vis­i­tors were in con­trol un­til Lat­ti­more picked off Foles’ deep throw to Zach Ertz. The Saints showed plenty of moxie on their 79-yard march to a touch­down, fak­ing a punt at their 30, with Taysom Hill run­ning 4 yards for a first down. They also went on fourth-and-goal from the 2, and Philadel­phia’s rapidly de­plet­ing de­fense sur­ren­dered Kirk­wood’s 2-yard touch­down.

“When you just get that in guys’ minds that we’re go­ing to be ag­gres­sive, that we’re go­ing to play to win, it al­lows guys to re­lax and to cut loose,” Brees said.

With Brees find­ing the range and his re­ceivers find­ing loads of room to roam, New Or­leans crept to 14-10 at half­time on Lutz’s 45-yard field goal.

Brees, who turns 40 Tues­day, fin­ished 28 for 38 despite the aw­ful start, throw­ing for 301 yards. Aside from Thomas, who was tar­geted 16 times — he led the NFL with 125 catches — no one caught more than four passes for New Or­leans. Alvin Ka­mara had four for 35 yards and also rushed for

AP/BILL FEIG

New Or­leans Saints wide re­ceiver Michael Thomas pulls in a touch­down re­cep­tion as Philadel­phia Ea­gles cor­ner­back Cre’von LeBlanc de­fends in the sec­ond half of Sun­day’s NFC di­vi­sional play­off game in New Or­leans. Thomas caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a touch­down as the Saints won 20-14.

Brees

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