The legend of Ol' Saint Nick Foles has finally been extinguished by the Saints. On Sunday, the Saints welcomed the Eagles into New Orleans, overcame an early 14-0 deficit, slowly took control of the game, and secured their spot in the conference championship game against the Rams with a 20-14 win that came down to one final charge from Foles.
Michael Thomas led the way with 171 yards and a score. Drew Brees wasn't at his best, but he still threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 168 yards. But the key was the Saints' defense, which gave up 14 points on their first two series, and then pitched a shutout the rest of the way.
It didn't come easy, though. With two minutes remaining and the Saints clinging to a six-point lead, Foles had the Eagles 27 yards away from a second-straight trip to the NFC title game. But just as it began to feel like the Eagles' win was assured, Alshon Jeffery let a routine pass slip through his fingers and Marshon Lattimore was there to end the game. According to NFL Research, it was Jeffery's first career drop in the playoffs.
It was a season-ender.
And so, Foles' four-game playoff winning streak, which dates back to last January, is over. A year after improbably leading the Eagles to a championship, for which he earned Super Bowl MVP honors, Foles dragged the Eagles into the playoffs by winning three-straight games in December, two of which came against playoff teams. He followed that up by helping the Eagles upset the Bears in Chicago, . Foles might've had nothing to do with Cody Parkey's blocked field goal that hit both the upright and the crossbar before falling harmlessly to the grass, but the legend of Ol' Saint Nick grew nevertheless.
It turns out, all that was needed to defeat the legend was a Saints team that hasn't lost a home playoff game since 1993, went 13-2 in games that mattered in the regular season, and features a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, arguably the league's best receiver, and a near top-10 defense.
The first half was a tale of two quarters. The Eagles came out and blitzed the Saints with 14 points and led 14-0 at the end of one, but the Saints fought back to make it a 14-10 game at halftime thanks to a fake punt and a huge fourth down touchdown pass.
Beginning in the second quarter, the Saints started to take control of the game. They exercised their control over the game on the other side of the break with a dominant 18-play, 92-yard, 11:29 scoring drive that provided them with their first lead of the game. They held a 17-14 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. After getting a stop, the Saints mounted another impressive drive and added a field goal. The Saints led Foles by six points in the fourth quarter.
What could possibly go wrong?
In 4 of Nick Foles's last 7 starts, he has led a 4th quarter comeback and game-winning drive.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) January 14, 2019
surviving a Nick Foles 4th quarter playoff run requires additional oxygen pic.twitter.com/i8akUFNbAA— Pick Six Podcast (@picksixpod) January 14, 2019
The Saints' defense forced a quick stop. And the Saints' offense looked like it would make sure Foles didn't get another chance to win the game. Thomas converted a huge third-and-long and Kamara picked up a first down one play later, but a third-down run lost significant yardage and then Wil Lutz missed a 52-yard field goal that would've served as a dagger.
With just under three minutes remaining, Foles needed to go only 58 yards to send his team back to the NFC title game. He hit Zach Ertz for 16 yards. A roughing the passer penalty took them to the Saints' 27-yard line. On the final play before the two-minute warning, Foles hit Jeffery in the hands, but the ball went through his hands and landed in Lattimore's stomach.
Game over, season over.
The Saints will now host the Rams in next week's NFC title game. It'll be a rematch of their epic Week 9 showdown, which saw the Saints prevail with a 45-35 win. This time, a trip to the Super Bowl will be at stake.
If you still haven't marked your calendar for the Super Bowl, the game will be kicking off from Atlanta on Feb. 3 and will be televised by CBS and you can stream it right here. If you're thinking about buying a new TV for the big game, CNET has you covered. They shared their best picks for every budget.
Eagles fizzle after fast start
The game couldn't have started any better for the Eagles.
On the first play from scrimmage, Brees took a deep shot to Ted Ginn Jr. The ball was underthrown. Eagles cornerback Cre'Von leBlanc picked it off. Brees, who threw five interceptions all season long, got intercepted on his first throw of the game.
Seven plays and 76 yards later, the Eagles took the lead via Foles and Jordan Matthews, who hooked up for a 37-yard touchdown. The Eagles led 7-0.
A defensive three-and-out and a 10-play, 75-yard series later, the Eagles led 14-0. The Saints couldn't stop Foles, who started 8 of 9 for 113 yards, one passing touchdown, one touchdown run, and a 155.8 passer rating.
The Saints couldn't stop him through the air.
They couldn't stop him on the ground.
The Saints were utterly discombobulated. Their first first down came via a taunting penalty. They followed that up by fumbling a snap and taking a delay of game penalty. They looked completely rattled and unprepared -- perhaps partly explained by their starters resting in Week 17 and their first-round playoff bye. The Saints' third series ended with Brandon Graham strip sacking Brees.
A 14-point Saints deficit at home with Brees isn't entirely unheard of, but it is remarkably rare.
This is just the 3rd time a Drew Brees-led Saints team trailed by 14+ points at home after the 1st quarter since 2010.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 13, 2019
After that opening quarter, the openings dried up for the Eagles. The Eagles scored 14 points on their first two drives, but managed zero points on their final eight drives. After a hot start, Foles finished with an underwhelming stat line, going 18 of 31 for 201 yards (6.5 yards per attempt), one touchdown, two picks, and a 61.4 passer rating. He did all of his damage in the first quarter. Not helping matters was the Eagles' running game, which averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
The Saints' defense dominated for three quarters. And Foles' magic finally ran out.
Sean Payton wills his team back into the game
Things flipped in the second quarter. After the Eagles got a huge pick early in the first quarter, it was the Saints who got a huge pick early in the second quarter when Lattimore took the ball away. The ball was underthrown, but give Lattimore credit for making an awesome contested catch.
But the Saints went three-and-out, getting stuffed on a third-and-short to set up fourth-and-1. Perhaps sensing just how badly they needed a spark and just how close they were to teetering over the edge, Sean Payton dialed up a fake punt with Taysom Hill. It worked.
On the next play, Brees hit Thomas for 42 yards. Eight plays later, on fourth-and-goal, Brees found Keith Kirkwood for a touchdown that got the Saints back into the ballgame. Check out the play-design, because it's Payton at his best.
That is elite play-design from the Saints on the TD there. So many teams have been running that tunnel screen with the WR motioning into the formation, including the Eagles themselves. Saints faked it and hit Kirkwood over the top.— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) January 13, 2019
Give Payton credit for the play-call and for having the guts to go for two fourth downs to get his team back into a game they had been slogging their way through. A ton of coaches would've punted out of fear of handing the Eagles great field position. A ton of coaches would have settled for a field goal to get on the board. Payton's aggressiveness got the Saints back into the game. The game flipped after that drive. The crowd got back into it. The Saints woke up. Momentum might not matter in football, but it certainly felt like the pendulum had swung back into the Saints' favor.
At halftime, the Eagles led 14-10. After starting 0 of 3 with a pick, Brees entered halftime 13 of 19 for 171 yards, one touchdown, one pick, and a 92.2 passer rating. In the second quarter, Brees went 11 of 13 for 141 yards and a touchdown.
The drive to end all drives
The Saints took their first lead of the game on their first series of the second half. It was an anything but ordinary series.
It started at their own 8-yard line and it ended in the end zone 92 yards later. It required 18 plays that officially counted and 22 plays if you count plays ruined by penalties. It involved conversions on second-and-20 and third-and-16. It included a missed touchdown due to a poor throw by Brees and a touchdown called back by a penalty. It really had everything. An 18-play, 92-yard drive is never easy. It's especially not easy when a team gets called for three penalties along the way.
Give credit to Thomas for making key play after key play. He was responsible for the conversions on second-and-20 and third-and-16. And he capped the drive with a touchdown.
Speaking of Thomas ...
Michael Thomas dominates
Thomas, coming off an incredible regular season that saw him catch 125 of 147 targets for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns, was the best player on the field. He caught 12 of 16 targets for a franchise playoff record 171 yards and one touchdown.
There was his catch in the second quarter to help set up the Saints' first touchdown.
There was his 20-yard catch on third-and-16 in the third quarter on that epic drive.
And there was a third-and-13 conversion with six minutes left in the fourth quarter as the Saints tried to ice the game.
After an incredible regular season that, Thomas went out and dominated a playoff game. He might just be the best receiver in football right now.
Brees good enough, but not sharp
Brees wasn't at his best, but he was good enough, completing 28 of his 38 passes for 301 yards (7.9 YPA), two touchdowns, one pick, and a 103.1 passer rating.
This might seem like nitpicking, but his deep ball was especially off. You already saw his interception on his first pass of the game, but there was also his underthrown pass to Hill that should've been a touchdown.
It didn't end up mattering because the Saints eventually scored on that drive and they eventually won, but it is worth noting. On the one hand, Brees wasn't at his best and he hasn't really been at his best for the past month or so. On the other hand, even when Brees isn't at his best, he's still good enough to throw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Furthermore, imagine how unbeatable the Saints might become if Brees suddenly does rediscover his earlier form that once had him above Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race.
An already difficult beginning worsened when Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins got carted off the field during their second defensive series. The former first-round pick racked up a career-high eight sacks this season, but his season ended in just about the worst possible way. According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, it's believed to be a torn Achilles tendon.
Two plays later, Eagles guard Brandon Brooks got carted off with a serious-looking injury of his own. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the injury is "serious" and Brooks is out "indefinitely."
On the same series in the second quarter, the Eagles watched Fletcher Cox and Michael Bennett suffer injuries. Bennett returned, but Cox was deemed questionable to return with a foot injury. The Eagles also lost cornerback Rasul Douglas to an ankle injury.
Cox returned late in the second quarter, after his absence was beginning to be felt. He forced a holding penalty almost immediately. As soon as he returned, Jeffery went into the locker room early.
And this was all in the first half!
Jeffery returned after halftime. Cox, however, went back to the locker room in the fourth quarter.
The Saints will host the Rams in the conference championship game on Sunday. The winner will play the winner of Patriots-Chiefs in Super Bowl LIII. Meanwhile, the Eagles enter the offseason having to feel good about their future, even if their season ended with a heartbreaker.
Feel free to relive the game with our live blog below.