Talk about instant replay.
In posting a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints secured a Superdome rematch next weekend with the Rams. The winner goes to the Super Bowl.
It was just two months ago that the Saints beat the Rams in this same venue, 45-35, pulling away down the stretch on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas.
Now Los Angeles is coming back, with a beefed-up running game and a healthier secondary, looking to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to the nation’s second largest market for the first time in 35 years.
“They’re a really good football team,” Brees said of the Rams, who advanced to the conference championship round Saturday night with a home win over Dallas. “We knew that when they came in here midseason. I had a feeling we’d be seeing these guys again. So here we are.”
The teams tied for the league’s best regular-season record at 13-3, but New Orleans will host next Sunday’s game because of its Nov. 4 victory over the Rams.
With their victory over the Eagles, the Saints advanced to the NFC championship game for the third time, joining the 2006 and 2009 teams. Their 14-point comeback was the biggest in Saints postseason history, eclipsing the 10-point deficit they overcame against Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.
“We are one step closer to our goals,” linebacker Demario Davis said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”
The Saints also ensured the Eagles won’t repeat as Super Bowl champions. The last franchise to do so was the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
“It’s tough because it’s so final,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.
Final for the Eagles, but not for the Saints and Rams — and in the AFC, the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. They have at least one more game, with the two winners moving on to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
“It’s win or go home,” said Thomas, of Woodland Hills’ Taft High. He tormented the Eagles as he did the Rams. He had 12 catches for 171 yards Sunday and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter to put New Orleans up, 17-14.
Thomas, the league’s leading receiver this season with 125 catches, reeled in 12 for 211 yards against the Rams, who were without cornerback Aqib Talib at the time, leaving Marcus Peters to try to blanket Thomas. That didn’t work on the long, spirit-snapping touchdown.
“It certainly doesn’t surprise anyone on this team what he’s been able to accomplish this year and what he’s been able to do today,” said Brees, who finished 28 of 38 for 301 yards. “He’s a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays when you need it most.”
Sunday’s game was markedly different than the Eagles-Saints game in Week 11, when New Orleans posted a 48-7 blowout and outgained Philadelphia, 546 yards to 196.
This time Philadelphia took a 14-0 lead in the opening quarter, but failed to score the rest of the way as the New Orleans defense clamped down and Brees directed touchdown drives of 79 and 92 yards, along with marches of 67 and 62 that ended in field goals.
Even though they couldn’t relocate their offensive rhythm after the first quarter, the Nick Foles-led Eagles were always within striking distance. The visitors were trailing by six with 1:52 left when a Foles pass slipped through the hands of Alshon Jeffery and was intercepted by Marshon Lattimore at the New Orleans 19.
“It happens to the best of us,” said Jeffery, who lay face down on the turf for several moments after the drop, processing the frustration and disappointment. “You move on. It hurts right now, but I guarantee we will be back next year.”
Lattimore, who picked off Foles twice, said the noise in the dome helped inspire the Saints.
“When we played Carolina [in the first round] last year, it was pretty loud,” Lattimore said. “But this time it was loud. And we love that. We love the crowd being in the game with us. And that helps give that extra push to get the job done.”
The Saints, who a decade ago opened the second half of their Super Bowl victory with a surprise onside kick, showed that same type of aggressiveness Sunday with a successful fake punt from their 30 in the second quarter. That kept alive their first touchdown drive.
In the third quarter, New Orleans put together an 18-play drive that lasted 11:29 — essentially an eternity — keeping Philadelphia’s offense off the field for all but six plays in the period.
“We were just focusing on play after play after play,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “We’re not really looking at the time. At the end of the drive, we realized we took up 18 plays and basically the whole quarter. That’s a sign of a great offense.”