All week long the talk was how the New Orleans Saints couldn’t win a playoff game. It was the decisive reason TheSportsNotebook picked against them in our preview of the New Orleans-Philadelphia first-round battle. That talk was laid to rest as the Saints beat the Eagles 26-24 on a short last-play field goal by Shayne Graham. What follows is the Notebook Nine, our nine key takeaways from this game…
- *An adage of the NFL playoffs is that turnovers are everything. I’ve adhered to that conventional wisdom, but it’s clearly not everything. Drew Brees threw two interceptions, Philadelphia didn’t turn the ball over at all, and the Saints still won. The Eagles joined the Kansas City Chiefs as teams who won the turnover battle by a margin of at least two, and still lost.
- *If it’s not turnovers, then surely red-zone execution must matter the most then, right? Again, we had a counterintuitive result. New Orleans settled for field goals. Now one of them was a 46-yarder, meaning it really wasn’t a red-zone situation, and another was at the end of the game when the offense just set up for the kick. That still leaves two other opportunities that could have been 14 points and were instead only 6.
- *The Saints got a tough break when defensive back Keenan
AllenLewis had to leave the game and was not allowed back in by the medical staff, though he could be seen pleading to re-enter. Allen had shut down Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, and when Allen left, Jackson was able to get loose for three catches for 53 yards.
- *What all of the above points underscore is how superior New Orleans was, even on the road and in the cold, to win in spite of turning it over, not cashing in opportunities and having the most notable injury. And that underscores the weakness of the NFC East, something that was a yearlong storyline. Were the Eagles even one of the top six teams in the NFC? It’s a fair question.
- *New Orleans isn’t known for their running game, which is putting it mildly. But Mark Ingram pounded for 97 yards on 18 carries. Even if the Saints get Pierre Thomas back next week, they should stick with the bigger Ingram to give a physical presence in the offense. By contrast, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, the league’s leading rusher, was held to 77 yards on 21 carries. For the record, the last time the rushing champ advanced out of the first round was 2007, when San Diego did it with LaDanian Tomlinson.
- *The Philadelphia defense did a very good job of making Drew Brees spread the ball around. The Eagles took away Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Brees’ twenty completions went to ten different receivers and only safety valve running back Darren Sproles had more than three.
- *Rob Ryan’s defense for New Orleans did its own good work in the passing game. They kept Nick Foles underneath, and while his 23/33 showing was efficient, it only produced 195 yards. A short passing game like that, even when it’s error-free, needs a supplement—either some deep balls or a productive running game. And we’ve already established that McCoy wasn’t able to do his normal thing.
- *I’ve never been tolerant of coaches who stay with bad kickers (unless it’s a case of an established vet just having a slump). This is the ultimate easily interchangeable position. It’s not like jerking your quarterbacks around. That’s why I admire New Orleans coach Sean Payton for doing the right thing and changing his kicker in Week 15 when he wasn’t happy with the results. Graham might not be a long-term solution, but sometimes you just need to find the hot hand (or foot, as the case may be). Payton pulled the trigger and won a playoff game because of it.
- *When you lose a game on the final play, there’s no shortage of individual moments you can look back on with regret. The play that stands out for me with the Eagles is a third down play on the first half. Riley Cooper broke open on a well-executed crossing right. Foles hit him in the hands and Cooper had a lot of green in front of him. Instead he dropped the ball. It’s highly probable the drop cost Philadelphia at least three points. You do the math.