Piv­otal plays swung game back to Saints

Ped­er­son de­fends Jef­fery over drop turned pick that ended Ea­gles’ fi­nal drive.

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Andy Schwartz

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.

2. Six!

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.

3. In­juries

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.”

as­[email protected] Twit­ter @as­chwartz94 610-508-1501

JONATHAN BACHMAN/GETTY IMAGES

The Ea­gles got off to a good start when Cre’von LeBlanc came up with an in­ter­cep­tion in the first quar­ter.

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