Eagles, Saints face same giant playoff hurdle

Winning in the playoffs is so much tougher than getting there.

PHILADELPHIA

— Riley Cooper flashed a sad smile and walked away without saying a word.

What the fourth-year Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver was running from on Wednesday was a question about the end of his first year, when he was in his first playoff game and the target in the closing minute of a pass thrown into the end zone by Michael Vick.

Tramon Williams intercepted the slightly underthrown ball to seal a 21-16 Green Bay victory in the wild-card round that jump-started his team on the way to a Super Bowl title. The interception was as much Cooper's fault for not coming back to fight Williams for the ball as it was Vick's for making the throw, which was ill-advised in the first place. The Eagles had a first down at the Packers' 27-yard line with 44 seconds to go, still plenty of time, even with no timeouts remaining, to get a game-winning score.

To be sure, it was a watershed moment for both teams. Following the five-point loss that was marred by two missed field goals by David Akers, coach Andy Reid not only jettisoned his kicker but his defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the Eagles winning just 12 games over the next two seasons and Reid himself being jettisoned in favor of Chip Kelly.

The Eagles were not nearly as competitive in their previous playoff appearance, which came one year earlier in Dallas. That turned out to be another watershed game: Donovan McNabb's first appearance as an air guitarist and last as an Eagle.

You have to go back to the 2008 postseason to find the last Eagles playoff victory, which came when they bounced out the favored New York Giants, minus pistol-packing wide receiver Plaxico Burress, in a defensive scrum at the Meadowlands.

The Giants had the best team in football that season, before Burress went all gangsta in a Manhattan nightclub, ostensibly changing the course of NFL history, leading to the Pittsburgh Steelers (who used to employ Burress) beating the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

Never mind that the Eagles had beaten both of those teams thoroughly in the regular season.

All of the above is just background for today's final swing thought before the Eagles and New Orleans Saints meet at Lincoln Financial Field for the right to advance to next weekend's divisional round: Winning in the playoffs is exponentially harder than getting there.

The Eagles are back for the first time since the Vick-Cooper connection was denied, but haven't really proved anything yet under Kelly. They're 1-3 against playoff teams this season, the one win coming against a depleted Green Bay team that was led by a quarterback signed off its practice squad four days earlier.

New Orleans is back for the first time since its coach, Sean Payton, served an unprecedented one-year suspension in 2012 for his alleged role in allowing his defense to place illegal bounties on crippling blows that could sideline individuals for the rest of the game or worse. Yet despite their Super Bowl championship in 2009, the Saints haven't proved anything either.

They not only are 1-2 in the playoffs since that season, but have never won a playoff game outside of their SuperDome with the exception of that Super Bowl, played at a neutral site.

Tonight's clash is guaranteed to prove something to somebody. What that will be is anyone's guess. Both teams have huge, almost indescribable hurdles in front of them, and only one will make it through to the other side.

Having gone through the process in Houston for many years, Eagles tight end James Casey describes transitioning from playoff qualifier to playoff winner as a mindset that must be forged.

"We finally got to the point where we got to the playoffs," he said. "We were on the brink so many times before that. I think the biggest thing is just the mindset of the players. We just sort of had the expectation going into the third and fourth year that I was there that when we started training camp, we expected to be in the playoffs and we expected to win in the playoffs.

"I get that sense from this team here. I had the sense going into the Dallas game last week that everybody expected to be playing [the] next week. Nobody was preparing to be going home. We've got the same feeling right now. Everybody expects to keep playing."

Cornerback Cary Williams admits he thought the offseason was just around the corner while playing in the divisional round with the Baltimore Ravens against the Denver Broncos last year. The Raven trailed late in the fourth quarter, needing a touchdown just to tie.

They got it on a Hail Mary pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with under a minute remaining.

"I knew from that point on we weren't going to lose another game," Williams said.

That feeling of destiny, generated by another watershed moment, carried the Ravens to a championship.

Experience also is a huge component, and this is what could be the difference for the Eagles in the end. Not a lot of players on this roster truly know what it takes to win a playoff game because they haven't done it before.

Williams, linebackers Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans, Casey, wide receivers Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson, tight end Brent Celek, guard Todd Herremans and long snapper Jon Dorenbos are the only ones. That's 10 out of 53.

Enough?

"Depends on who wins, right?" Kelly said last week. "If we lose, we were inexperienced. If we win, then there will be another story. We are concerned with how do we prepare to play a really good Saints team, and that's all we can really be concerned with."

Sometimes it takes an unlikely 70-yard pass, sometimes it takes a crucial interception, sometimes a huge break like a superior opponent coming in depleted and distracted due to gun violence. Sometimes it's just a belief.

Whatever it is, the Eagles or the Saints won't know they have it until a game that will be a minimum of 10 times harder to win than any of the previous 16 is over.

nick.fierro@mcall.com

610-778-2243

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