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Saints outlast Eagles, will face Rams for NFC crown

Marcus Lattimore fielded an Alshon Jeffery ricochet for an interception that thwarted Nick Foles' latest bid for storybook heroics in January. Here's what we learned in Sunday's showdown at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a hard-fought 20-14 Saints victory over the Eagles in the most entertaining display of Divisional Round weekend:

  1. The home crowd was silenced on the first play from scrimmage, with nickelback Cre'Von LeBlanc intercepting an underthrown Drew Brees deep ball meant for streaking speedster Ted Ginn. Clicking on all cylinders with impressive focus and precision, the undaunted Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead with Foles thoroughly outplaying a jittery Brees. The Saints' fortunes changed in the middle of the second quarter with an aggressive fourth-and-1 fake punt in which special teams dynamo/gadget player Taysom Hill powered his way to a first down. A buoyed Brees followed up with a 42-yard pass play to Michael Thomas and an end-zone floater to rookie Keith Kirkwood, halving Philadelphia's lead.

The Superdome crowd was a factor from then on, shaking the press box and sending the decibel-level soaring. The Eagles' offense fell dormant in a morass of penalties, wasted timeouts and general chaos. The Saints took control of the festivities coming out of halftime, going 92 yards (or 112, counting penalties) in 18 plays while burning nearly 12 minutes of game time during an instant-classic drive that culminated in a Michael Thomas touchdown -- and New Orleans' first lead of the day.

  1. As the Saints rolled toward juggernaut status prior to the Cowboys' upset victory in Week 13, a throw from Brees to Thomas had become the most reliable positive outcome in football. After a few hiccups in December, that connection returned with a vengeance Sunday. Thomas proved too talented and physical for Philadelphia's cornerbacks, carrying the Saints' offense with 171 yards and a touchdown on 12 receptions. With swaggering assassin Foles warming up on the sidelines, ready to repeat last week's fourth-quarter magic, a leaping Thomas boxed out Josh Hawkins to convert third-and-13. Will Lutz went on to miss a 52-yard field goal that would have extended the lead to two scores with three minutes remaining. The Rams' All-Pro tandem of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters will have their hands full with Thomas in next week's NFC Championship Game at the Superdome.
  1. Brees, on the other hand, will have to play better -- as he did in the Saints' 45-35 victory the last time these NFC powerhouses met in Week 9. Although the newest member of the age-40 QB club continues to make plays in key situations such as second-and-long or third-and-short, he missed a pair of long touchdowns due to ostensible arm-strength limitations on his deep ball -- a weakness scouts have been hinting at for a few years. The best downfield throw of the day came from the arm of Taysom Hill, who hit Alvin Kamara in stride on a 46-yard touchdown that was nullified by penalty during the 18-play scoring drive. Early in the game, a mistake-prone Brees also dropped a snap, took a bad third-down sack and fumbled twice.
  1. Injuries were a major factor, beginning in the first quarter when Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins -- a third-year breakout star -- was carted off the field with an injury that is feared to be a torn Achilles, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. The scales were evened two plays later when Philadelphia's Pro Bowl guard, Brandon Brooks, was carted to the locker room with a serious leg injury of his own. Several key Eagles starters missed time over the final three quarters, including All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (foot) and veteran left tackle Jason Peters (back). Cox and Peters will have all offseason to mend. Rankins will likely be replaced by run-stuffer David Oneymata for next week's all-important tilt.
  1. Speaking of the Saints' defense, this might be the lone iteration from the dozen years of the Sean Payton era capable of shutting out a high-octane opponent for three quarters, allowing Brees and Thomas to overcome a double-digit deficit. Led by Lattimore, star defensive end Cameron Jordan and veteran linebacker Demario Davis, this is a swarming unit that pins its ears back and reaches hyper-drive speed on the slick Superdome turf.
  1. The magic finally faded for Foles and the reigning Super Bowl champions. Had the uncannily clutch quarterback managed to orchestrate another run at the Lombardi Trophy, he may have had a chance to force the Eagles' hand, leading the team's brass to reexamine their commitment to Carson Wentz as the future under center. Now that Foles has fallen short of a second straight trip to the promised land, general manager Howie Roseman can cite contract issues as a reason to move on. If the Eagles opt to exercise Foles' $20 million option by the fifth day of the league year in March, the Super Bowl LII MVP can then purchase his freedom for $2 million, via his own player option. It will be interesting to see if all parties involved can find common ground on a profitable scenario that allows the organization to trade Foles to a destination of his choice.
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