A game-opening firestorm ignited by the Philadelphia Eagles was calmly extinguished over time by the better team, allowing the host New Orleans Saints to come away with a 20-14 playoff victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night.
It was a thriller from start to finish, however, with the Eagles appearing to be marching toward a game-tying touchdown and go-ahead extra point — only to see a Nick Foles pass go right through the hands of receiver Alshon Jeffery and into the hands of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore with just under 2 minutes remaining to seal it.
Here’s what jumped out:
What happened in the first 10 minutes of this contest served to quiet a jacked-up crowd that was feeling pretty darn good about the Saints’ prospects of hosting the NFC Championship Game.
Quarterback Drew Brees went deep on the first play from scrimmage and was intercepted by Cre’Von LeBlanc.
The Eagles turned that into a touchdown and had a 14-0 lead before the Saints knew what hit them.
The Saints defense responded, however, by pitching a shutout the rest of the way.
As prominent as Alshon Jeffery has been in this team’s resurgence, he’s still underrated in the grand scheme of things.
This, despite his misplay on the Eagles’ final series.
Remember, it was Jeffery who was instrumental in getting the players to believe they were ready to win right away last season. No rebuilding or reloading necessary.
He finished this game with game-highs of five catches and 63 yards and proved time and again as this season wore on why he deserved the money the Eagles threw at him in a contract extension.
Also, nobody took that drop harder. The picture of Jeffery lying face down on the ground, knowing his drop cost them any chance they had of pulling the upset will be burned in every fan’s mind for weeks and months to come.
War of attrition
Finally, Pro Bowl DT Fletcher Cox limped off for a couple of series before eventually returning.
And the Saints took advantage. They scored a second-quarter touchdown on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2-yard line when Drew Brees picked on Josh Hawkins, who was in for Douglas, who was playing only because starters Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are on the injured reserve list.
With Cox out of the game, the run-stopping ability the Eagles showed with him in there disappeared.
After the game Brooks tweeted he suffered a torn Achilles.
At least Douglas and Cox were able to return.
Smallwood keeps churning
He might not be their long-term answer, but one thing third-year RB Wendell Smallwood has proven to the Eagles in his third season is that he can be counted on in big moments.
Smallwood always runs hard, and it was no surprise after watching him over the last few weeks that he was the only Eagles running back who carried the ball in the first half, which ended with the Eagles leading 14-10.
Smallwood finished with 33 yards on 10 carries.
Third and manageable
A big part of the Eagles’ overpowering start was their discipline and ability to avoid getting behind the chains.
They scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, converting one third down on each series.
Not until 5:13 remained in the second quarter did the Eagles move backward. It came when left tackle Jason Peters was flagged for a false start that turned a third-and-five into a third-and-10.
Not surprisingly, that led to their first punt of the game.
Cause and effect
The Saints were hurt by seven penalties for 50 yards by their offensive line through the first three quarters.
But give the Eagles’ defensive line credit for forcing most of them. This was a mismatch that almost carried the underdog Eagles to victory.
With the Eagles still clinging to a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, the Saints had a 46-yard TD bomb to Alvin Kamara wiped off the board by a holding penalty that made it second-and-20 from their 44.
They wound up scoring a TD on that drive anyway, converting a third-and-16 along the way.
Long third- and fourth-down conversions are going to be a big part of the offseason discussion.
Unfortunately defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will not be part of them until he’s required to talk at OTAs.
And that’s only if he’s still working for the Eagles.
Out of their element
So many of the Eagles’ injuries have turned backups or part-time players into full-time starters, significantly reducing the productivity of some as a result.
Perhaps the player most affected has been 33-year-old safety Corey Graham.
Last season, as their third safety, he was an asset. This year, as someone pressed into a full-time role, he’s more of a liability.
Others in this category: DT Haloti Ngata and, briefly, LB Nate Gerry.
On the other hand, other players, such as young defensive backs Rasul Douglas, Tre Sullivan and, of course, Cre’Von LeBlanc, have grown as the result of their emergency service.