Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.
The first half couldn’t have been worse. After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs. These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs. They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead. Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.
Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous. The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards. They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1). But the second quarter was even more frustrating. Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives. In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs. And no points. The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).
So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0. Not terribly encouraging.
And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.
Second Half Heroics
Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters. He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions. His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6. In the second half, Drew was Drew again. He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards. Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.
When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete. Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range. At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.
Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football. There was no time left on the clock. The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).
Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction. Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line. But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams. Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him. He missed the tackle. And that was it. It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.
What Happed to New Orleans?
At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team. From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground. Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.
Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably. Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game. They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football. When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.
Atlanta Goes Down, Too
This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta. When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl. But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.
Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse. Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries. His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.
The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense. Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia. Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter. They finished with just 281-yards of total offense. They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.
While Foles Leads the Offense
Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on. Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air. He missed on all 3 of those passes. But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27. Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%). It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).
All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz. I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense. Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win. Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless. Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons. In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush). None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards. But they kept at it.
Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.
Minnesota in Philadelphia
So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on. Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.
Some years the NFL is an easy read. Some years it seems that anything can happen. This year is one of the latter.