PHILADELPHIA — Famous for their high-powered offense, the Saints won the first road playoff game of their 47-year existence Saturday night with eight runs and a field goal made by a kicker who hasn’t been on the team a month yet.
Down by a point to Philadelphia with 4:54 to go, the Saints moved 34 yards on 10 plays, having been set up at the Eagles’ 48 after a penalty for a horse-collar tackle on Darren Sproles, who returned the kickoff to New Orleans’ 37.
Among those plays, undrafted rookie running back Khiry Robinson rushed three times for 22 yards. Quarterback Drew Brees sneaked the ball twice to convert third-and-1s, and he centered the ball once to set up kicker Shayne Graham from 32 yards.
Graham booted a kick that split the uprights as time expired, and New Orleans won the NFC wild-card showdown 26-24.
“It was actually one of the most comfortable feelings I’ve had my whole career,” Graham said. “For some reason, I didn’t feel an ounce of fear or anxiety.”
The Saints advance to the divisional round Saturday afternoon to face the Seattle, the top seed in the NFC. The Seahawks finished the regular season with the top defense in the NFL and beat up on New Orleans 34-7 on Dec. 2.
Graham’s kick was his fourth of four on the day. He earlier converted from 36, 46 and 35 yards.
Coach Sean Payton said Graham was “exceptional.”
“It was fantastic in a big spot,” Payton said. “Every kick he hit was clean. Obviously in a playoff football game, those things matter.”
The 14-year veteran, who had been on eight teams previously, has made six straight field goals for the Saints since signing as a free agent Dec. 17 to replace Garrett Hartley. Hartley himself had made historic kicks to help the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV before he struggled this season and was waived.
“Four weeks ago, when I was sitting home on my coach, I actually did envision this situation,” said Graham, who was 6-of-6 for Houston in the 2012 postseason, the last time he played before joining the Saints. “I just didn’t know what colors I would be in.”
The Saints’ final drive was not at all spectacular. But it will go down as one of the most beloved in franchise history because it meant the Saints won for the first time in the six non-Super Bowl games they’ve played away from the Superdome in the playoffs.
The kick notched the Saints their first away outdoors win this year since the first week of October. They lost five of their last six road games to close the regular season, raising serious questions about whether the Saints could actually survive a visit to Philadelphia.
Even worse, temperatures for the game were in the 20s. Since Payton took charge in 2006, the Saints were 2-6 in games when their coach was on the sideline, their starters were playing and temperatures were 40 or below.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles arguably outplayed Brees. Foles went 23-of-33 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Brees was 20-of-30 for 250 yards, but he threw two interceptions in the first half before improving in the second half and throwing a 24-yard touchdown to wide receiver Lance Moore.
Brees was 10-of-12 for 152 yards in the third and fourth quarters.
But the Saints defense held the NFL’s top rusher, LeSean McCoy, to 77 yards on 21 carries. Though McCoy scored a touchdown, the second-ranked Eagles offense had to punt five times and was outgained by New Orleans’ fourth-ranked attack 434-256.
The Eagles scored on their last three possessions, taking advantage of the Saints losing cornerback Keenan Lewis to a head injury in the third quarter. Nonetheless, Philadelphia was averaging 161 yards more on offense heading into the game. And with that masterpiece of a performance, the Saints defense gave their boss, Rob Ryan, his first playoff win as an NFL coordinator.
Filling in for injured running back Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram rushed for a 4-yard score and 97 yards on 18 carries.
Statistically, it was not the best game of his career. But it was no doubt his most important one — he showed McCoy up decisively, helping the Saints rack up 185 yards on the ground, one of their best showings this year.
In three previous road playoff games under Payton, the Saints had a total of 160 rushing yards.
“Obviously, we blocked them, and the backs ran with good pad level,” Payton said. “We felt like we pushed them pretty good. The line of scrimmage was the difference, we think.
“I think our players felt coming in here tonight there was no way they were going to leave here without winning this game. They did a great job fighting.”
Later, in the Saints’ locker room, team owner Tom Benson sought Brees out and congratulated him.
Brees, who was the MVP in the Saints’ only Super Bowl victory, said, “It’s nice when you can continue to accomplish firsts.”