Saints’ stars, role players link up for landmark win

PHILADELPHIA — If this is what it’s going to be like outside about 90 miles from here up the Jersey Turnpike four weeks from now, the Saints will gladly volunteer to experience it again.

So will their fans who were in attendance here Saturday, braving the chilly-but-bearable temperature, but hopefully not too much abuse from the notoriously obnoxious home crowd.

Erasing the stigma of being unable to win on the road, not just for the latter part of this year but in their playoff history, the Saints kept alive a seemingly impossible dream of ending the season at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII, leaving the full house at Lincoln Financial Field in disappointment and disbelief.

“This means we can win on the road,” running back Mark Ingram said. “We can win in cold weather as well. We can win anywhere.”

That presumably includes Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the site of the Saints’ worst road performance of the season, next Saturday against the top-seeded and presumably well-rested Seahawks.

To win there, the Saints will have to get another set of gallant performances, presumably as was the case Saturday, from both expected and unexpected sources:

The Expected: Quarterback Drew Brees, who adjusted after a semi-horrendous first half to perform in the second quarter as if he were back home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

After going 10-of-18 for 98 yards with two interceptions in the first half, Brees was 10-of-12 for 152 in the second while even executing rare quarterback sneaks to pick up three first downs.

The Unexpected: Kicker Shayne Graham, who was on the street as a free agent until three weeks ago, when the erratic play of former playoff hero Garrett Hartley finally became too much to keep him any longer.

Graham — who has changed teams 17 times after starting out as free agent with the Saints in 2000 — was dead-on four times Saturday, the last from 32 yards as time expired.

The Expected: The defense, which lived up to the high standards it set under coordinator Rob Ryan, improving from the worst ever to No. 4 in the league.

Against a team that ranked No. 2 in total offense and No. 4 in scoring, the Saints held the Eagles to 256 yards — 151 below their season average.

And this was done down the stretch without cornerback Keenan Lewis, who suffered a possible concussion. It was hardly surprising that the Eagles, down 20-7 at that point, scored on their final three possessions.

The Unexpected: Ingram. Or, as he is often called, Much-Maligned Mark Ingram.

Often the main target for those who criticize the Saints’ running woes, and with Pierre Thomas out because of a chest injury, Ingram stepped up big-time, carrying 18 times for 97 yards, a 5.4 average, finding holes and carrying would-be tacklers for extra yardage.

Ingram also had a career high three receptions for another 17 yards.

The Saints ran the ball as many times as they threw it (30-30), helping them win the time-of-possession category.

And then there’s Darren Sproles, who had not been a factor on kickoff returns this season and who averaged only 19.9 on his first two Saturday.

Then, with the Saints trailing by a point with 4:54 left and desperately needing field position, Sproles cut to the outside and found running room he hadn’t seen in a while, going 39 yards to the Saints 37.

Whether he would’ve gotten the extra 15 tackled on for Cary Williams’ horse-collar tackle, which, put the Saints into Eagles territory to begin their winning drive, is immaterial.

It was a game-changing play that turned the final outcome from possible to likely.

It was just that kind of night for the Saints, who’d been hearing all week about how they couldn’t win on the road, especially in cold conditions.

But when everything was on the line in the final period, they made the plays on offense, defense and special teams to defeat as good of team as there was in the NFC over the last two months.

Playoff victories, especially on the road, are never easy.

The Saints earned every bit of this one.

A long road awaits — to Seattle and then, if they should prevail, to Charlotte, San Francisco or (gulp!) Green Bay if they are to make it the Super Bowl.

Will it happen? Probably not. But as long as you’re still playing, you’ve got hope.