PHILADELPHIA — Of course it would be this team.
Of course this version of the New Orleans Saints would do what no one thought they could.
After a late-season road slide sank them to the No. 6 seed, a spot that would force them to permanently play away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, this is the team that created one more first.
Finally, after losing the previous five road playoff games they had ever played, the Saints have one in the win column, a shocking 26-24 come-from-behind win over Philadelphia.
While the players and coach Sean Payton spent all week poking fun at the road problems, they knew behind closed doors the storyline was true.
“It gets kind of old hearing the same things over and over,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “But at the same time, we didn’t do anything to prove anybody wrong.”
New Orleans played poorly in a last-second win at Tampa Bay and barely escaped Atlanta. It lost a heart-breaker in the final seconds at New England and Carolina. It laid an egg at St. Louis and New York and was manhandled in Seattle. The win in Chicago seemed like an outlier.
For the first time since Payton took over in 2006, the Saints were outscored on the road 179-142 for the season. They’d scored a combined 36 points in the final three games away from home during the regular season.
It’s human nature to look at trends and when one sees what the Saints had done in the final two months of the regular season, it was easy to think they’d put up one more stinker.
Unsaid in the dialogue, though, was that those last-second losses to New England and Carolina came against each conference’s No. 2 seed and that the loss at Seattle was to what could be the best in football.
Then there’s the franchise’s dubious history of losing games on the road in the playoffs, which added a whole new layer to the road woes story.
Then again, Payton and the players didn’t care about that.
The coach’s message all week and following Saturday night’s win – whatever happened in that past remained there.
“This is a new team and we take on our own identity,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “You can look way back in history and we’d be carrying a lot of junk if we carried the Saints history.”
He added, “This year, this team, for us to go out and win on the road in the playoffs is huge for us. I think that’s what the excitement is about. That’s why guys are really enjoying this one, because it’s special for this team. Not because we got somebody else’s weight off our back.”
What’s just as impressive as getting the win is the manner in which the Saints pulled in the victory.
Thanks to a run game that has come alive in the later part of the season, Payton was able to call a balanced game.
Mark Ingram ran for 97 yards and a touchdown while Khiry Robinson ended with 45 yards and a 4.5 yard-per-carry average. New Orleans finished with an astounding 185 yards on the ground, helping the offense and Drew Brees remain balanced in the second half when the game remained in doubt.
Even when players went down – linebacker Parys Haralson left with a chest injury while cornerback Keenan Lewis went out with a concussion – others stepped up. Will Herring stepped in for Haralson and didn’t allow anything big. Rod Sweeting went in for Lewis and didn’t give up anything over the top.
The Saints held the NFL’s No. 2 offense to just 256 total yards, 3 of 12 on third down and three points below its season average.
You got the feeling, with 4:54 remaining and New Orleans trailing 24-23, that the Saints weren’t done yet.
“I think though that there was a little bit of resolve,” Payton said. “I think our players felt coming in here tonight there was no way we were going to leave without winning this game.”
That confidence was built throughout the season.
Looking back in an attempt to look forward, Payton gave his team an idea of why he thought his team was better than Philadelphia.
“One of the things I talked about was our record during the season and strength of schedule, who we played during the year with 11 wins and the division we played in, really the non-divisional games we played in,” he said. “We played some real good football teams in San Francisco, Carolina twice and Seattle, keep going. We felt that that was something that was significant.”
The significance we now see with clarity. New Orleans was game-tested and travel-ready.
Of course this was the team that was going to end the road curse.
It’s so easy to see now.