Saints’ ground game finding its wheels

PHILADELPHIA — Days before the Saints’ wild-card game in Philadelphia, running back Mark Ingram assured anyone who approached him that his team’s rushing attack had shaped itself up to be a strength in the postseason and not the disappointment it had been early in the year.

“Everybody’s just more comfortable with the scheme,” Ingram, who had never appeared in the playoffs, told reporters Thursday afternoon. “We know how the linemen are going to block. They know how we’re seeing things. ... Everybody’s just gotten on the same page.”

Two days later, as the Saints defeated the Eagles 26-24 at Lincoln Financial Field to win a road playoff game for the first time ever, it became clear that Ingram had slightly understated things.

The Saints outgained the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack by 105 yards, 185 to 80. New Orleans rushed for 25 yards more than they had in three road playoff losses under coach Sean Payton. And they did that without their leading rusher, Pierre Thomas, who missed the game with a chest injury.

That performance was the culmination of a turnaround that had been in the making throughout the second half of a season that finds the Saints heading to a divisional round playoff game at top NFC seed Seattle (13-3) on Saturday afternoon.

In the first eight games of the 2013 regular season, New Orleans ran the ball for 638 yards on 191 carries — a paltry 79.8 yards per game.

The Saints didn’t run the ball much more in their next eight games — they just did so much more effectively. New Orleans rushed for 835 yards on 200 attempts, or 104.4 yards per game, to complement a second-ranked pass offense under the direction of quarterback Drew Brees.

That number was helped by a 242-yard performance on 38 carries in a Nov. 10 win over Dallas, which had the league’s worst defense. Ingram had a career-high 145 yards as well as a touchdown that night.

But the Saints also tallied an impressive 126 yards at Carolina against the NFL’s second-ranked defense on Dec. 22. Ingram played well, rushing 13 times for 83 yards.

New Orleans lost to Carolina 17-13, however, when it went three-and-out on two key possessions toward the end of the game. That gave the Panthers enough time to score the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left and win the NFC South.

Nonetheless, as the Saints geared up for the Eagles, they justifiably believed Payton could rely on them to establish a running game that complemented the pass.

“We definitely want to go into games and be balanced,” All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said before the Eagles game. “Coach trusts us to the run the ball well, and that’s got to continue.”

At the most important time of the year, there’s no reason for Payton to lose that trust.

After two Brees interceptions put the Saints behind 7-6 against Philadelphia in the first half, Ingram opened the third quarter by carrying the ball eight times for 46 yards and a touchdown on New Orleans’ first two drives. He had already gotten 41 yards on seven carries in the first half and ended up with a team-leading 97 yards on 18 carries, showing he was primed for his first NFL postseason game.

The Saints last made the playoffs in 2011, but Ingram — then a rookie — missed the end of the year hurt.

Brees threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore on the other drive, and the Saints were ahead 20-7 with 3:54 left in the third quarter.

The Saints’ defense played splendidly against Philadelphia, holding them to half of the 160 rushing yards they were averaging per game. LeSean McCoy — who had run for about 100 yards per game in the regular season and led the NFL in rushing — managed just 77 yards on 21 carries.

But then star Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis suffered a head injury in the third quarter and left, and the Eagles scored two touchdowns — including one by McCoy — as well as a field goal on three consecutive drives to take a 24-23 lead. Lewis wasn’t the only key Saints defender to leave the game injured — linebacker Parys Haralson hurt his chest late in the first half.

The Saints began their final drive at Philadelphia’s 48 with 4:54 to go in the game. That was about how much time was left on the first of their two three-and-outs at the end of the Carolina game.

This time, though, the Saints didn’t go three-and-out. Undrafted rookie running back Khiry Robinson rushed three times for 22 yards — he finished with 45 yards on eight carries. Brees snuck up the middle twice to convert third-and-1s.

After nine plays, the Saints were at Philadelphia’s 14 with three seconds to spare. Shayne Graham drilled a 32-yard field goal, his fourth of four made field goals in the game. And the Saints made history. Reports of fireworks in New Orleans-area neighborhoods were widespread.

McCoy lamented that he and his colleagues on offense “let the (Eagles) down.”

“We won the turnover battle, and we could have done more,” he said. “It just wasn’t clicking.”

Ingram, on the other hand, said, “I love the fact that the coaches had the faith in me and the other backs to run the ball a lot in the game.

“I just work so hard day in and day out so that when they call my number, I will help us win games.”