Pivotal plays swung game back to Saints
Pederson defends Jeffery over drop turned pick that ended Eagles’ final drive.
The Eagles rocketed off to a 14-0 start.
They were rolling.
It looked like the magic was going to continue.
But then the clock struck midnight, and the defending Super Bowl champs didn't score again.
An interception, fake punt, Michael Thomas, an 11-play drive that seemed to take hours, a depleted secondary and a drop that Alshon Jeffery will see in his sleep all led to the end of the Eagles' magical run in a 20-14 loss to the Saints in the conference semifinals.
“It's tough because it's so final,” coach Doug Pederson said. “You're here at the end of the season because there's no more football for 2018. Just told the guys just keep your heads up.
“We set out on a journey way back in OTAs, and we keep talking about having no regrets — leave everything out on the field — and they did that tonight. They battled right to the end.”
Ten game-changing moments:
1. Pick ...
The Saints went deep on the first play, but not deep enough. Drew Brees looked for Ted Ginn Jr. down the middle, but Cre'Von LeBlanc picked off the slightly underthrown pass.
The talk all week was how the secondary had come together since the first meeting, and it took one play for the Eagles' to show it.
As NBCSP's stats guru Reuben Frank researched, Brees had thrown only nine picks in his last 537 postseason attempts. Plus, LeBlanc is the first player to make an interception on the first play of a playoff game since 2009 when former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, as a member of the Cardinals, picked off Aaron Rodgers to open a wild-card game.
Off a play fake to Wendell Smallwood, Nick Foles threw deep to Jordan Matthews, who beat P.J. Williams for a 37-yard TD. Williams looked back toward the ball and stopped running, leaving Matthews open to go get it.
Foles was 5 for 5 — to five different receivers — for 65 yards on the drive.
The Eagles lost right guard Brandon Brooks in the first quarter, just two plays after Saints starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was lost for the game with a leg injury.
Both players were carted off.
Brooks after the game tweeted that he had a torn Achilles.
4. The officials
Just when you thought you've seen it all. The call on the field after Brandon Graham stripped-sack Brees that awarded the Saints the ball was ridiculous.
Graham clearly didn't have possession and it's hard to believe an official actually thought he did. The term “clear recovery” certainly has taken on new meaning this season.
At least the call was overturned after replay.
5. Nick picked
Foles has been throwing the ball up and letting his receivers make plays with great success, but with the Eagles up 14-0, cornerback Marshon Lattimore beat Zach Ertz to the ball for the interception.
The ball was slightly underthrown too.
6. Fake punt and 4th-and-goal
On 4th-and-1 on their own 30, the Saints called a fake punt, and QB Taysom Hill took the direct snap and got the first.
The Eagles could have accepted a holding penalty to make it 3rd-and-11 but declined it. Still can't blame them for forcing the punt. Given the field position, the fake punt was certainly a gutsy call. Pederson was ready for it and kept his defense on the field.
“You kind of expect it in that situation — it's 4th-and-1,” Pederson said. “Just a great play by them.”
Bigger problem: Fletcher Cox left the game with a foot injury. He did return.
Then on 4th-and-goal from the 2 — and with Rasul Douglas out with an ankle injury — the Saints went after CB Josh Hawkins, who was beaten by Keith Kirkwood for a touchdown.
7. The never-ending scoring drive
It took 18 plays, covered 92 yards, and lasted what seemed like two hours (11 minutes and 29 seconds of game time).
The Saints overcame three penalties — one that erased a TD — and took a 17-14 lead after Michael Thomas beat LeBlanc for a 2-yard touchdown.
Thomas after that drive had caught 10 of 12 targets for 140 yards. He finished with 12 catches on 16 targets for 171 yards.
8. Mark Ingram breaks one
Ingram hadn't done much — until now. His 36-yard run set up a 39-yard field goal.
9. Big stop and big miss
Michael Bennett stuffs Alvin Kamara for a 3-yard loss on 3rd-and-8, which forces Wil Lutz to kick a 52-yard field goal. It's just wide right, and the Eagles still had life.
However, they also take their second timeout because they used one early within the first minute of the third quarter, and that would prove costly.
10. Oh no Alshon
A 16-yard catch by Ertz. A roughing the passer penalty on the Saints.
The Eagles were on the New Orleans 27.
“I thought we were on our way,” Pederson said. “It just felt like the momentum at that point was in our favor, in our hands. It felt like the magic was going to continue.”
They could have let the two-minute warning hit but instead ran a play — “Plenty of time to get to the line of scrimmage and get the play off. Wanted to stay aggressive,” Pederson said — and on 2nd-and-10 Jeffery was wide open, but the ball went right through his hands to Lattimore for the interception. Ball game over. Season over.
Per ESPN stats and info, Jeffery entered the game with just two drops this season.
“It's hard. It's really hard because he's so down, but for me it's about staying positive,” Pederson said. “He's made many many big catches for us this season, and he will continue to do that. I just told him he's got to keep his head up and don't let one play define you. It's not who he is. He's too good of a player. He'll embrace it obviously, and he'll be better for it.”
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The Eagles got off to a good start when Cre’von LeBlanc came up with an interception in the first quarter.