NEW ORLEANS, LA (WAFB) - The notion of a first round playoff victory being a breakthrough for a regime that's reached two NFC Championships and won a Super Bowl may sound stupid to some, but not to me.
The New Orleans Saints 26-24 road triumph at the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night finally removed the albatross of never winning a road playoff game from the franchise's neck. And, the fact the contest was played in 25-degree weather means a resounding, 'Yes,' to the question of whether Sean Payton's club can triumph in the cold.
Some of the same problems certainly popped up. The Saints offense that somehow ripped off staggering numbers of points and yardage in the Superdome can be a root canal outside of New Orleans. Such was the case Saturday night in the first half, as superstar quarterback Drew Brees was intercepted twice by the Eagles. The second of which was simply a bad toss and put the Saints behind at halftime 7-6, instead of perhaps being ahead 10-0. Brees's road turnover problems this season have been well-documented.
However, Brees often speaks of 'breaking the seal' and in my opinion, that's what the Saints finally did in the third quarter. Typically, the reference means getting that elusive, first, first down of the game, which then leads to a barrage of offense. In this case, Brees's 24-yard scoring toss to Lance Moore finally got New Orleans in the end zone and did the trick. It finally gave the Saints a touch of swagger that's been missing away from home.
Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal was perfect at the gun, as was Payton's gamble on signing Graham. Making such a drastic move at such a precarious position like kicker late in the year is very gutsy. But in this case, it was necessary and Graham was dynamite, going 4-4 on the frigid night, including a lengthy 46-yarder.
Speaking of brave coaching moves, how about handing the football eight times to rookie Khiry Robinson in a pressure-packed situation? Had Robinson fumbled the ball away just once, critics would've crucified Payton for trusting such an unproven back at such a critical juncture. But the head coach showed great faith in the West Texas A&M product and Mr. Robinson delivered with 45 very important rushing yards. He carried three times on the Saints' game-winning march, tightly gripping the pigskin, as Philadelphia defenders tugged on it in aggressive desperation. Because of that, Robinson's confidence has to be strengthened tremendously.
"It's still just football," he can tell himself. "I can do this."
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to be one of my biggest surprises in sports this year. From afar, he seemed more sizzle than steak, almost like a cartoon character rather than a legitimate fix. Boy, did I shoot an air ball on that one. Ryan's defense, combined with the strong running game of Robinson and a resurrected Mark Ingram, (91 yards rushing and 1 TD) are the biggest reasons the Saints won in Philly. Chip Kelly's explosive Philadelphia offense was held to an anemic 256 total yards. The Saints tackled in space and hit hard. They hit so hard that invaluable cornerback Keenan Lewis knocked himself out of the game. Ryan's defense gives this team a chance on the road. What a job he has done with a unit that was historically awful last season.
Beating Seattle on the road is a whole different challenge. The long trip to the Northwest taxes and tests the body. Also, the crowd noise at Qwest Field is ear-splitting. But, here's the deal. The Seahawks played a perfect game the first time around against the Saints at home, embarrassing them on Monday Night Football 34-7 in early December. It felt more like 134-7. New Orleans, on the other hand, couldn't have played any worse. The team was absolutely DOA. I expect neither to occur this time around.
Does that mean the Saints can win? I'm not sure. It will certainly be tough, but I do know Saturday night's thriller in Philadelphia can only help this team's belief in itself and its morale. The Saints finally 'broke the seal' away from home.
Grab another box of Popeyes. More magic could be on the way.