Saints march on after ending playoff road drought
(Reuters) - The New Orleans Saints beat the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles 26-24 in the wild card playoff round on Saturday, ending a road jinx with their first playoff win away from home in the history of the franchise.
Shayne Graham kicked a 32-yard field goal through the middle of the uprights for the winning score as the clock hit zero less than five minutes after the Eagles took a 24-23 lead on a three-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to tight end Zach Ertz.
The winning drive was set up by a 39-yard kickoff return by Darren Sproles extended by a 15-yard penalty for a horse-collar tackle that put the ball on Philadelphia 48-yard line.
Drew Brees completed 20-of-30 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown, while Mark Ingram ran for 97 yards on 18 carries for New Orleans, who controlled the line of scrimmage in gaining 185 yards rushing.
"We know what type of team we are," Brees told reporters. "We know how good we can be. It was just a matter of putting it all together.
"This was great, coming on the road, in a hostile environment against one of the hottest teams in football."
On the other side of the ball, the Saints defense stifled the prolific running game of the Eagles, holding NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy to 77 yards on 21 carries and yielding only three other yards on the ground.
New Orleans, who had lost all five of their previous road playoff games since joining the National Football League in 1967, will travel to Seattle to play the top-seeded NFC West champion Seahawks next week.
Despite their lack of success away from their climate-controlled Superdome home, Saints coach Sean Payton said his team was supremely confident.
"I think there was a resolve," Payton said. "I think our players thought coming in here tonight there was no way we were going to leave without winning this game."
Despite a snowstorm that hit the area on Friday and sub-freezing temperatures, the lack of wind and relatively solid footing presented a fair playing field for both teams.
"I thought the weather was pretty good all things considered," Payton added. "Hardly any wind at all."
As far as the charge against the Saints as a team that loses big games on the road, Payton said: "I told the players, 'you carry your own history. That stereotype can come with a team that plays inside.' But we travelled pretty well tonight."
Eagles first-year coach Chip Kelly said the field position gained by the Saints on the last kickoff was a killer, but that he considered the season a success.
"I told them I was proud of them, for us being together for such a short time, and how they acted and how they came to work every single day. I just thanked them for that."
The hard-fought contest included four lead changes before Graham connected on his fourth field goal to clinch victory.
After a scoreless opening quarter between the two offensive-minded teams, the Saints got on the scoreboard first on a 36-yard field goal by Graham for a 3-0 lead.
Eagles quarterback Foles hit Riley Cooper with a 10-yard touchdown strike to jump ahead 7-3 before a 46-yard field by Graham closed the gap to 7-6 at halftime.
The Saints took charge in the third quarter. Brees connected with Lance Moore on a 24-yard score less than five minutes after the intermission to put New Orleans ahead 13-7.
Running back Ingram, carrying the weight with Pierre Thomas sidelined with a back injury, bulled into the end zone from four yards out to cap an eight-play, 66-yard drive for a 20-7 lead.
Philadelphia fought back, and just before the end of the quarter, NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy plunged in from one yard out to finish a 65-yard drive and cut the deficit to 20-14.
The Eagles' Alex Henery booted a 31-yard field goal to draw within 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, before the Saints made it a six-point game with a 35-yard kick by Graham.
Foles gave the home crowd reason to roar when he sidearmed a go-ahead touchdown pass to Ertz with 4:54 remaining but the crowd of nearly 70,000 was silenced as the Saints marched down the field to set up their winning field goal.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Greg Stutchbury)