- Ashley Fox
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PHILADELPHIA -- It wasn't the Popeyes fried chicken or the green Gatorade. It wasn't the new travel sweats or the revamped beefy mac or the hip-hop music that blasted from practice all last week as the New Orleans Saints tried to figure out a way to notch the franchise's first road playoff win and keep this season moving.
Changing things up might have recalibrated the players' attitudes, but it didn't produce the Saints' 26-24 last-second win over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night.
No, that win was due to the fact that New Orleans has one of the most effective, creative playcallers in the game and one of the most effective, efficient quarterbacks running his system. The Saints won because of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. And with those two men at the helm, anything is possible, even a playoff win on the road against the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks next Saturday.
I know, I know. Seattle manhandled New Orleans at home in Week 13. The Seahawks completely dominated the Saints from the jump. The crowd was raucous. New Orleans never got into a rhythm. The Saints seemed intimidated by Seattle's aggressiveness and never overcame it.
It was embarrassing. It was demoralizing. And it remains fresh, an open wound over which the Saints put a Band-Aid but that is yet to scar. New Orleans lost 34-7, scoring the fewest points and gaining the fewest yards (188) in the Payton era.
In the locker room after that game, Payton told his players to remember what they were feeling, because they would return to Seattle. They would see the Seahawks again. They would get a chance at redemption.
And, boy, was Payton right.
"We're going to need our best effort to beat these guys," Brees said, "but if there's a team that can do it, I believe that's us."
Of course Brees feels that way, but there is some evidence to support his opinion. It was there on the stat sheet he studied in the locker room after Saturday night's game. The Saints gouged Philadelphia for 434 total yards, including an uncharacteristic 185 yards rushing. They survived two Brees interceptions because they gained 8.3 yards per pass play.
New Orleans' defense held the NFL's rushing leader, LeSean McCoy, to 77 rushing yards and just 3.7 yards per run. It held the Eagles to just 3-of-12 on third downs and forced four three-and-outs. Before their best cornerback, Keenan Lewis, left in the third quarter with a head injury, the Saints made Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson a nonfactor.
It was, as Payton said, a complete team victory.
It also was the second straight game in which Payton seemed to be in a groove calling plays, several offensive players said afterward. Like a player who misses a season due to injury, it has taken Payton time to return to being the coach he was before his yearlong suspension for the Saints' bounty scandal. He would never admit it, but his players saw the rust. They saw the adjustments he had to make.
And Payton is fully back, they say, and at just the right time.
"Really, the last two games I felt like have been his best," veteran tackle Zach Strief said. "How quick the plays have been coming in, the tempo, the rhythm that we're playing with, he just seems to keep getting better. It's good to have him, and if he wasn't as valuable then he wouldn't be that guy for us."
Same with Brees. He again threw for 5,000 yards during the regular season in a statistical feat that has become, for him, almost commonplace. He threw two interceptions in the first half against Philadelphia, yet no one panicked. No one was concerned.
"When he's in the game, no matter how he's playing, we always have a chance," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "We kind of didn't get lucky with a couple of those throws. There's never a twitch in Drew. Every drive, it's, 'Let's go down and score.' He's just a leader. He's the leader of this offense, the leader of this team, and how he goes we go. I think everybody knows that."
To win in Seattle, a place where the Seahawks have lost just one game in the past two seasons, the Saints will need Brees and Payton to be at their best. Given what happened in early December, Payton won't need any gimmicks to motivate his team this week. The Saints know what happened. They remember the feeling.
"We got beat pretty soundly by those guys," Brees said. "There's a reason they're the 1-seed. There's a reason that the road to the championship goes through Seattle, because they're a heck of a football team."
And there's a reason New Orleans is still alive. The Saints are peaking at the right time, behind the play of their quarterback and the play calling of their coach. They face a high degree of difficulty in having to win in Seattle, but with Brees and Payton, they should have a chance to avenge the embarrassment that occurred on that Monday night several weeks ago.