The New Orleans Saints overcame a sloppy first-half performance, bitter cold and a litany of injuries to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 26-24.
It was the first road playoff game win in the history of the franchise — aside from Super Bowl XLIV — and the city erupted in celebration, taking to social media and the streets.
Reports of fireworks, either left over from recent New Year’s Eve celebrations or bought especially for Saturday evening, came in from all across the region. A Jefferson Parish deputy responding to a fireworks complaint radioed “Who Dat” back to his dispatcher, according to a Nola.com report.
Hundreds of people descended on Louis Armstrong Airport to welcome the team home, waiting until 4 a.m. for the team plane to get in, in a only-in-New Orleans celebration that lined the roads stretching back from the airport gates.
It was as dramatic a win as Saints fans have seen in quite some time. Midway through the fourth quarter the Saints were back on their heels. Their secondary, depleted by injuries, had just relinquished a 77-yard touchdown drive, and momentum had decidedly swung Philadelphia’s way.
Trailing by one point, with 4:54 remaining in the game, Darren Sproles fielded the Philadelphia kickoff from two yards deep in the Saints end zone. The explosive running back ratcheted up his trademark speed for a 39-yard return, and the refs tacked on an extra 15 yards thanks to a horse-collar tackle.
And then the offense really got to work. Despite the cold, which dipped down to 19 degrees with the wind chill. Despite the hostile environment, where Eagles fans booed Saints injuries on the field, in a city where the joke on the way to the stadium was the giant targets stuck on the sides of the team buses — to give Philadelphians a place to aim their eggs. Despite the team’s woeful record on the road this year, and brutally inefficient final offensive drives that cost them games in both New England and Carolina.
Instead, Sean Payton’s offense got to work with short, smart plays that chewed up the clock and the Philly side of the field, recording three first downs on their way to the Eagles’ 14-yard line and just three seconds left to play.
Shayne Graham, who has been perfect since signing with the Saints just three weeks ago to replace the on-again/off-again Garrett Hartley, booted the 32-yarder through the uprights for his fourth kick of the night, and just like that the Saints are headed to Seattle for the next round of the playoffs.
“It was a great feeling, not only to be a part of the win but to be a part of the team togetherness after the win,” Graham said after the game. It was the first playoff win of his journeyman career.
"This is a total team victory today," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Rather than the free-for-all offensive shootout many predicted, the game was largely decided by the teams' defenses, especially in the first half. Play began with four straight punts, followed by Drew Brees' first interception of the night, a deep right pass intended for Kenny Stills that was picked off at the Philadelphia 3-yard line.
Eagles kicker Alex Henery missed the field goal attempt however, and the Saints took over on their own 38-yard line. New Orelans opened scoring at 8:41 of the second quarter, taking a 3-0 lead off Graham's first field goal, a 36-yarder capping an 11-play drive.
The Eagles responded quickly, with a textbook Chip Kelly hurry-up offense that turned the second interception of Drew Brees into a 44-yard, 11-play drive down the field in 2:24, giving them the lead, 7-3.
The Saints would bring it to within one with three seconds left in the half, settling for Graham's second field goal. New Orleans moved 47 yards in 1:48, but was unable to move past the Philadelphia 28-yard-line.
New Orleans opened the third quarter with two quick touchdowns, pulling ahead with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore at 10:16 of the third quarter.
A quick three-and-out by the Eagles gave the Saints the ball back at the 8:46 mark, and this time it would be Mark Ingram who would bang home a touchdown on the ground, a 4-yard dash at 3:59 of the third.
Ingram, often maligned by fans this year and starting at running back in place of the injured Pierre Thomas, was the Saints' star Saturday night. Ingram ended the night with 97 yards on the ground off 18 attempts, plus 17 yards receiving.
The Eagles came right back with their no-huddle rapid-fire system, however — LeSean McCoy picked up a touchdown with 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and Henery booted a 31-yard field goal at the 11:17 mark of the fourth to bring the Eagles within three points.
"We knew they weren't going to fold up their tent and leave; it's the playoffs," said New Orleans safety Malcom Jenkins. "When we needed it we showed up big."
Graham kicked his third field goal to extend the Saints' lead to six with 8:09 to play, but Philadelphia came right back with a 77-yard 3:10 touchdown drive — thanks to a 40-yard pass-interference call on cornerback Corey White — capped by a 3-yard pass to Zach Ertz, to set up the last-minute heroics.
— Linebacker Parys Haralson left the game with what Saints management believes is a torn pectoral muscle.
— Cornerback Keenan Lewis left the game after a hard hit with what was apparently concussion-like symptoms. He worked over the Saints' training staff on the sidelines but was not allowed to return. The Saints were forced to rely on Sweeting, and the Eagles took advantage of the mismatch.
— The Saints talked all week about what they needed to change up to finally win in the cold and on the road: the color of the Gatorade, the warmup sweatsuits, and a return to eating Popeyes Chicken before the games. The local chicken chain's social media team responded with a few pitch-perfect tweets, like this one:
— Popeyes Chicken (@PopeyesChicken) January 5, 2014
This story has been updated.