Zach Ertz and the Philadelphia Eagles nearly pulled off the upset in New Orleans after jumping out to a 14-0 lead early against the Saints, but Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas led the Saints offense to a narrow victory and an NFC Championship Game berth.
The Eagles had one final drive to try to take the lead, but they couldn’t capitalize, and their title defense came to an end at the hands of the No. 1 seed in the NFC. However, this team has plenty to be proud of after battling their way into the playoffs after a 4-6 start to the season.
“We fought today, and I wouldn’t change a thing, I don’t regret anything, we gave it our all each and every day,” Ertz said. “Each and every week during practice, we battled and we went to the guys that make plays all year.”
The Saints received the opening kickoff in Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Brees and the Saints offense jogged out onto the field with the ball at their own 35-yard line. Brees dropped back to throw for the game’s first play, but the ball intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was picked off by Cre’Von LeBlanc at the Philly 24-yard line.
Nick Foles established Philly’s aerial attack early completing a pass to wide receiver Golden Tate for six yards. Foles continued to hammer the rock into his receivers’ hands completing passes to Ertz, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and a strike to Jordan Matthews to cap the drive with a 37-yard touchdown that put the Eagles up 7-0.
Against a high-powered Saints offense, the Eagles defense would be critical in this game. Brees and the Saints’ offense only generated three plays on their second drive after two incompletions and a Mark Ingram run for no gain.
The Eagles had struggled with first-quarter scoring all season, but on Sunday the offense came out firing. Their second drive traveled 75 yards in 10 plays before Foles punched in a score on a quarterback sneak, extending the early lead to 14-0.
“I thought we battled our butts off,” Ertz said. “Started fast, 14-nothing lead, as an offense really couldn’t do much after that.”
On the ensuing Saints’ possession, the Eagles defense stood strong once again, forcing another New Orleans punt. Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Brees on third down halted the drive from the Saints, keeping momentum on the side of the Eagles.
On the Saints’ next possession, the Eagles seemed to force yet another three-and-out, but Sean Payton made a gutsy call to run a fake punt from his own 30-yard line. Taysom Hill converted, and New Orleans went on to score a touchdown on the drive, cutting the Eagles’ lead to 14-7.
The defenses continued to shine for the rest of the quarter, with the only points being a Will Lutz field goal to make it a 14-10 game going into halftime.
The Saints took their first lead of the game on a drive that lasted nearly the entire third quarter, capped off by a two-yard Michael Thomas touchdown grab.
After stopping the Eagles on the ensuing possession, the Saints added to their lead on their next drive, making it a 20-14 game with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
After a few defensive holds, the Eagles had one final chance to go down the field and win the game. The drive began on the Philadelphia 42-yard line after a missed Will Lutz field goal.
On the second play of the drive, Foles found No. 86 for 16 yards and an Eagles first down. On the next play, Foles drew a roughing the passer penalty to move the ball to the New Orleans 27-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the next play resulted in an interception after a tipped ball intended for Alshon Jeffery, one of the stars of last year’s Super Bowl, found its way into the hands of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, ending the Eagles’ playoff run.
“I just told him he has to keep his head up and don’t let one play define you,” Pederson said about his talk with Jeffery after the play. “It’s not who he is, he’s too good of a player.”
Despite the result of the game, the Eagles have much to be proud of and a lot to look forward to. By making their push to the playoff and fighting through so much adversity, they proved to the rest of the league that they are a team ready to stay at the top for years to come.
“Looking forward, it’s a good football team,” Pederson said. “We’re going to learn from this, we’ll be better for it.”
As they had done for most of the season, Ertz and Jeffery led the team in receiving on Sunday, catching five passes each for 50 yards and 63 yards respectively.
“We’re just playing at a higher level as a football team playing with a lot more energy, a lot more confidence this time around,” Ertz said comparing Sunday’s Eagles team to the team that played the Saints back in Week 11. “I don’t even remember that team that was here [Week 11]. That team was so far in the past from where we were then to where we are now.”
The season may not have ended the way the team wanted, but they can be proud of the way they turned it around. The lessons learned from this season will go a long way in shaping the success of the team moving forward.