Saints' surprises: Run game and road win
January, 5, 2014
By Mike Triplett | ESPN.com
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsMark Ingram rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL playoff game.PHILADELPHIA -- Can't win a big game on the road? Can't win in the cold? Can't rely on the run game when it counts?
Not this time.
The New Orleans Saints finally delivered the performance they'd been waiting for all season, a 26-24 wild-card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night. Heck, they've been waiting 47 years for this -- the first road playoff victory in franchise history.
And now, as a reward, they'll face an even more daunting road test next Saturday at the No. 1 seed Seattle Seahawks (you remember, the team that wiped the floor with the Saints, 34-7, in Seattle last month).
But who's to say the Saints can't pull that off after what they accomplished in Philadelphia? And more importantly, the way they accomplished it.
After pushing all the right motivational buttons all week, Saints coach Sean Payton continued to push the right ones throughout Saturday's game, recognizing that the rushing attack was working and sticking with it as much as he ever has in a game of this magnitude.
But as Payton likes to say: To do something you've never done before, you have to do something you've never done before.
"I said at the beginning of the week -- and we made light of a few things -- what really is gonna matter is the result," Payton said of all the quirky tweaks he made to the team's Gatorade flavor and pregame meals and travel sweatsuits in the face of the endless questions about the Saints' history of poor road performances.
"As far as the history of the organization, like I told those players, you carry your [own] history," Payton said of that narrative that hounded the team all week. "So I get it. We understand that. And that's that stereotype sometimes that comes with a team that plays inside, and we can't change that. We kind of like the environment we play in. And we traveled pretty well tonight."
They traveled well because they packed the 1-2 punch of running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
Conventional wisdom says that in a big playoff game like this -- especially one played outdoors in cold weather -- the team with the better run game wins.
But did anyone possibly think that could be the Saints?
Even the Eagles themselves admitted they were surprised by how often the Saints ran the ball Saturday -- 36 times for 185 yards.
On a day when quarterback Drew Brees struggled early, with two first-half interceptions, the Saints continually relied on Ingram (18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown) and Robinson (eight carries for 45 yards).
They even ran out the final 4 minutes, 54 seconds, methodically moving the chains to set up kicker Shayne Graham's game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.
"It was just great, man, just to know that we had confidence in the run game in the crucial moments -- the most crucial moment of our season -- that we could run the ball effectively," said Ingram, the unlikely hero who delivered in a huge way while starting running back Pierre Thomas was sidelined by a back injury.
The victory meant a lot to Ingram, a former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick who has done such a remarkable job of staying positive while struggling to gain a foothold throughout his NFL career because of injuries and inconsistent production.
"Obviously my first playoff game, I just had to step up and play my best football to help us win the game, so obviously I'm very proud of that," Ingram said. "Just the fact that they trust me and have that confidence in me, where I can carry the ball and carry the load, I appreciate that. That's why I worked my butt off every single day, just so that when I do have the opportunity, that I'm 110 percent ready to do what I can to help the team win games.
"I've always had confidence in myself. I always knew that I prepared my butt off [so] when I do have the opportunity to show what I can do that I'm ready for it. And people always talk -- that's always gonna happen. You're gonna have doubters. You're gonna have critics. You're gonna have haters. It really doesn't matter. I just work my butt off every single day and try to be prepared when the opportunity presents itself."
Ingram could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team's attitude heading into Philadelphia.
The Saints heard from plenty of those doubters, critics and haters as they approached yet another road game.
And as Brees said, they deserved it.
"Well, as much as we hate hearing the talk, we kind of brought it upon ourselves," Brees admitted, referencing the Saints' 3-5 record away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and the ugly three-game road losing streak in December that killed their chances of winning the NFC South. "So to put together a team victory like this on the road in a hostile environment, weather conditions, whatever. … We came in with confidence."
It was a total team performance -- and not just in the cliché sense that you hear from most any winning locker room.
There weren't enough game balls to hand out after this one. The defense was huge early, containing the guy who was supposed to be the superstar running back in this game, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy (21 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown). The Saints gave up some points and some big pass plays late after top cornerback Keenan Lewis left the game with a concussion in the third quarter. But they were just stingy enough to keep the game close.
And the Saints' special teams were equally huge, from kicker Graham's perfect 4-for-4 night to a huge kickoff return by Darren Sproles ahead of that game-winning drive.
And of course, Brees had plenty of huge moments of his own, rallying back from those early interceptions with a strong finish. He completed 13 of his final 17 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown.
"It was not free of errors or mistakes. We made our fair share of them," Brees said. "But at the end of the day, we just put ourselves in position to win. And we did that."