Defense was better than Eagles could have expected

Offense and special teams the only culprits in bitter playoff loss to Saints.

PHILADELPHIA

— Let the record show that the New Orleans Saints gashed the Eagles for 185 rushing yards in Saturday night's 26-24 playoff victory.

Let the record also show that none of those yards, except some on the final series, did anything to hurt the Eagles' chances for victory. And the Saints never should have been in a position to win it with any kind of a score there anyway had the Eagles' offense and special teams showed up earlier in that contest.

In the NFL, unless you have superstars in every position group, a rarity in the salary cap era and even rarer for a team that hasn't drafted a Pro Bowl defensive player since 2005, you have to give to get.

Defensive coordinator Billy Davis did just that to keep quarterback Drew Brees and his deadly Luftwaffe grounded in order to give the Eagles the best chance to win the war.

The design was sound and necessary, and the execution was more than good enough as well.

Problem was their offense. And their kicking game. And the decision by coach Chip Kelly in the fourth quarter not to trust an offense he designed personally to get 1 yard for a chance at seven points instead of going for the safer but ultimately useless three.

The Eagles did not lose that game in the fourth quarter, as the play-by-play sheet suggests. They lost it in the first three, when their offense disappeared for large stretches and kicker Alex Henery missed another field goal a fourth-round draft pick needs to make 100 percent of the time in his third season.

"I made the calls for the passing game, made sure that we keep the big plays off us," Davis said. "There were a lot more split safeties or pass-oriented calls where some of the runs leaked out, and I could have called maybe more of a run-defensive game and shut that down. But we were trying to keep the points down and big plays off us.

"So that run game comes down to me, not the players."

Yet the yards didn't hurt until the very end.

At halftime, the Saints had 94 yards on the ground but just six points to show for it.

In the third quarter, the Saints scored two touchdowns before the Eagles could get a first down, running for 24 of the 53 yards they needed on their first series, which was set up when the Eagles punted out of their end zone following an intentional grounding penalty on Nick Foles.

On their second touchdown, the primary damage on the 66-yard drive was done on passes of 27, 14, 10 and 9 yards.

The Saints added a field goal after safety Patrick Chung, beaten in coverage and in the run game from beginning to end, was out of position on a 40-yard pass, the longest of the evening by Brees, who also tossed two interceptions.

Not until the Saints took possession in Eagles territory (after a terrible kick and a penalty on the return) down by one point with just under five minutes remaining did their run game inflict any tangible damage, controlling the ball the rest of the way. They converted two third downs on quarterback sneaks.

Ballgame.

Don't blame Davis or the defensive players. For more than three quarters they went above and beyond the call and produced more than could reasonably be expected against Brees, who was limited to 250 passing yards, and a receiving corps that produced no more than four catches (Darren Sproles) or 44 receiving yards (Jimmy Graham) for any individual.

Brees completed just four passes of 20 yards or longer all evening. Their six scoring drives started at their 38 (field goal), 25 (field goal), 47 (touchdown), 34 (touchdown), 25 (field goal) and Eagles' 48 (field goal).

Still, those final 34 yards, which ate the final 4:54 off the clock and produced the game-winning kick as time expired will not sit well with the defenders who were not helped on this night by an Eagles running game that was supposed to dominate but instead cleared the way for LeSean McCoy to finish with just 77 yards on 21 carries.

The Saints too had to give to get, often leaving receivers like DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek open deep to come up and limit McCoy's options at the line of scrimmage. But Foles, who led the NFL with 9.1 yards per attempt this season, didn't see them, and the Eagles finished with 5.0 yards per pass play as a result.

Just as the Eagles chose to make the Saints, minus top rusher Pierre Thomas, beat them with the run, the Saints and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan chose to make Foles beat them over the top.

Mark Ingram came through with 97 yards on a season-high 18 carries for the Saints. Foles could produce only 195 passing yards on 33 total throws and two sacks, both entirely his fault.

The Eagles finished with a their second-worst yardage total of the season, 256 yards. Those numbers hurt more than any the Saints offense generated.

On the other hand, it was just Foles' 17th career start and first in the playoffs. To expect much more from him, despite how well he played to that point, might have been unrealistic against a defense that had the Eagles scouted perfectly.

"I made mistakes tonight, but I'm going to keep playing and keep fighting," Foles said. "It's tough. You don't want to do that, but you have to keep playing to the next play. You can't let a mistake like that, taking a sack or an intentional grounding, defeat you on the next one. My guys are depending on me to go out there and make plays. They're going to look to me in those situations.

"When I look at the film, it's going to be like, `Man, I should have done that.' But I'm not going to hold onto that. I'm going to keep moving forward. I'm not going to let that play defeat me and make me a worse player."

nick.fierro@mcall.com

610-778-2243

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