In a contest that very much resembled playoff football, the New Orleans Saints triumphed over the Philadelphia Eagles 26-24. With Saints quarterback Drew Brees having a below-average outing, it was the run game—in addition to the defense—that steered the Saints to victory.
Head coach Sean Payton called a brilliant game that finally saw the Saints run the ball more than they threw it. With starting running back Pierre Thomas a late scratch due to injury, fellow backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson put on an absolute clinic against the Eagles defense.
In addition, the Saints defense lived up to its billing as the No. 4-ranked defense in the regular season by virtually shutting down the very best run offense in the NFL and limiting its explosive passing attack as well.
The Saints couldn't have asked for a worse situation to be in, as they struggled both on the road and in inclement weather during the regular season. But they undoubtedly exorcised the demons—and did so in the playoffs no less.
Up next is possibly the very best the NFC has to offer in the Seattle Seahawks. If the Saints can replicate this balanced performance while limiting turnovers, they could very well find themselves in the NFC Championship Game in two weeks.
The task will be extremely difficult, but it's one the Saints can complete with balanced play on both sides of the ball.
Here are my takeaways from the game.
As the lone staunch supporter of Mark Ingram since way before the beginning of this season, it's only fair that I take solace in saying that this victory would have been impossible if not for the former Heisman-winning back.
With Pierre Thomas not available, Ingram stepped up and displayed the type of play that has continuously distanced him from other backs on the roster.
As I've relentlessly argued, Ingram is not a back like Thomas or Darren Sproles, who can be effective with a limited number of carries per game. Ingram needs to be fed like a hefty kid in elementary school. It's very apparent that he has the style to wear down defenses; he just needed the carries to prove it.
Gaining 97 yards on 18 carries, against the No. 10-ranked rush defense, supports what I've opined the entire season.
Ingram ran with power, agility and an intense ferocity and burst. He was simply the best offensive player in the entire game.
This is the same Ingram who could've carried the Saints to the No. 2 seed in the NFC but only received 13 carries in New Orleans' NFC South-deciding Week 16 loss to the Carolina Panthers, despite gaining 83 yards.
Although he may not be the receiving threat that Thomas or Sproles are, he's more than adequate enough to fill the role. Henceforth, Ingram should receive at least 60 percent of the snaps, with rookie Khiry Robinson (eight carries for 45 yards) spelling him when necessary.
This is a smashmouth duo that can put a defense on its heels. While I like the finesse abilities of Sproles and Thomas, it's backs like Ingram and Robinson that dominate in the playoffs.
This performance wasn't a fluke.
As much as Saints quarterback Drew Brees doesn't want to admit it, he has not played very well on the road this season for the most part. It's as if the media is in his head and he turns into his alter ego, "Mr. Throw That Pick!"
Usually, his mishaps can be blamed, at least in part, on the woes of the offensive line—but not in this particular game. Brees threw two interceptions that were extremely ill-advised and put the Saints behind the proverbial eight ball.
With the Eagles finishing the season as the very worst pass defense in the NFL, you just knew that Brees was going to have a day through the air. Instead, his play at times resembled the main character in Weekend at Bernie's, as he was not quite seeing what he was doing at certain points of the game.
But in typical Brees fashion, he rebounded with a resounding performance in the second half that gave his team an opportunity to win. It just goes to show what being a great leader can do for you not only in sports but in life in general.
Brees stayed the course, and his confidence never wavered, which in turn reverberated throughout the entire offense. But it had to help that the Saints finally leaned on the running game to take pressure off the struggling quarterback.
This is the type of effort that the New England Patriots are known for. Despite having one of the, if not the best QBs in the league in Tom Brady, the Patriots don't care how they get the job done. They only care about procuring wins.
Great job, Coach Payton.
Mark Ingram and the run game paced the victory, but it wouldn't have been possible without the performance of a stout Saints defense. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan designed a masterful game plan that limited the production of the league's most productive running back, LeSean McCoy.
The Saints crowded the box and rallied to the ball. The line held up at the point of attack and often gave McCoy very little room to operate. The linebackers scraped through traffic and tackled very efficiently. The defensive backs followed suit and made sure McCoy didn't get around the edges.
It was a total team display orchestrated by a coach, Ryan, who deserves consideration as a head coach.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan showed why he not only made his first Pro Bowl, but why he is a future star in the making, ending up with 1.5 sacks to go along with four tackles. But it was his pressure that collapsed the pocket and forced hurried throws from Eagles QB Nick Foles. His equally effective play against the run deserves merit as well.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks made his presence felt by controlling the interior of the line and getting pressure. Fellow interior lineman John Jenkins ate up space in defending against the run, just as he was drafted to do. Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne flew to the ball and brought impact when they arrived.
This performance was very reminiscent of what Saints fans saw in the late '80s and early '90s from the "Dome Patrol" defense. This also goes to show that a great defense does travel well in the playoffs.
Here's hoping it shows up in similar fashion next week in Seattle.
It's a widely perceived notion that the Saints offense can't survive without tight end Jimmy Graham putting up astronomical statistics. Furthermore, most believe the Saints don't stand much of a chance without Sproles dominating out of the backfield in the pass game.
Well, neither of those things happened, but the Saints still marched on to victory. Graham was held to 44 yards on three catches, with Sproles going for 31 yards on four receptions. Brees only threw for a paltry 250 yards, but like I've harped on, he got by with a little help from his friends, to quote the Beatles.
It shouldn't be understated how great of a job Payton did calling this game. Coming from a writer who has questioned if Payton should continue to call plays, his performance was magnificent. The Saints actually ran the ball (36 attempts) more times than they threw it (30 attempts). Who would've ever thought a victory would be derived from the strength of the run game?
If his history is any guide, Payton would generally opt to pass the ball 60 times, even in a snow blizzard, and perhaps run some type of weird double reverse to convert on 4th-and-1. But Saturday, the Saints actually pounded the Eagles between the tackles and called multiple QB sneaks to convert in short yardage.
When you take into account that receiver Marques Colston went back to his milk-carton ways against the Eagles' physical corner duo of Brad Fletcher and Cary Williams, this performance becomes even more impressive.
Sometimes, you have to take what the game gives you, and the Saints did just that on both sides of the ball. What a performance!
Saints corner Keenan Lewis was charged with the task of shutting down possibly the most explosive receiver in the NFL in DeSean Jackson. The Eagles' No. 1 receiver finished the season with 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine TDs. Against Lewis, he came away with the same amount of production as you and I would have had.
Lewis reminded me of the character Debo from the movie Friday, as he seemed to have mind control over Jackson. He frustrated his assignment by staying in his hip pocket all night, so much so that at one point it, looked like they were Siamese twins!
Lewis has screamed to the heavens, even at yours truly, that he's the best corner in the league. While I vehemently disagree with that notion, this type of performance, against a player that has dominated virtually everyone put in front of him, goes a long way in changing my perspective. Unfortunately Lewis sustained a head injury and was unable to finish the game.
And in typical Friday fashion, Jackson, playing the role of the character Smokey, got his groove back immediately when Lewis was held out of the game. This highlighted the lack of depth the Saints have at the corner position.
With corners Rod Sweeting and Corey White relegated to playing the primary spots, the Eagles offense proceeded to get in gear. The Saints may have done themselves a disservice by not pushing to sign veteran corner Nnamdi Asomugha before he retired after the injury to corner Jabari Greer.
Going to battle with inexperienced corners is not something Super Bowl winners do. Thankfully, the rest of the defense picked up the slack against a dangerous Eagles offense. But it was Lewis' performance that deserves a round of applause.