Vargas: Young players give Saints veterans new life

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks celebrates his sack of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles during last week's NFC wild-card playoff game. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks celebrates his sack of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles during last week's NFC wild-card playoff game.

When the timing’s right, second-year Saints cornerback Corey White says, he’s going to walk up to veteran teammate Roman Harper and point out that he’s undefeated on the road in the postseason and Harper is not.

White, of course, knows he hasn’t won a Super Bowl and that Harper has. But the barb White is planning to lob at Harper — and the comeback he would expect — illuminates one of the main reasons the Saints are two wins away from an appearance in the NFL’s title game.

Many of the Saints are upstarts who needed two seasons — if not one — to bag the first road playoff victory in the franchise’s 47-year history last Saturday in Philadelphia. Others are well-established veterans who years ago learned what it takes to win the Super Bowl.

It’s the second group’s mentorship of the first that boosts No. 6 New Orleans’ more-than-viable odds in its NFC divisional playoff game Saturday at the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks, who thumped the visiting Saints 34-7 on Dec. 2.

“When you have leaders like (the Saints do) ... it guides you,” White said. “You don’t worry about (playing) on the road. ... You just worry about being you and playing football.”

There are 10 Saints on the 53-man roster who won Super Bowl XLIV with New Orleans. Yet, like so many other Saints before them, they had never won a road playoff game.

This year, that group was accompanied to a wild-card showdown in Philadelphia by 18 teammates who had never been to the playoffs.

Half were rookies. Six more were in their second season. And, after Shayne Graham booted a last-play field goal to lift the Saints to a 26-24 victory, all 18 of them had earned the right to say they wrote the beginning of a new playoff history.

They’re 1-0 in the playoffs.

They’re 1-0 on the road in the playoffs after their predecessors had gone 0-5 in the same situation.

Now, these unbeaten road warriors will try to help the Saints become the NFL’s seventh No. 6 seed to beat a No. 1 since 2005, according to ESPN. They’ll try to help produce a 15th occasion since 1990 that a team bags a playoff victory against an opponent that beat them by at least 20 points in the regular season.

And, to a man, they’re glad they’re doing so alongside the champions of Super Bowl XLIV — Harper, Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Robert Meachem, Thomas Morstead, Malcolm Jenkins, Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas — as well as Benjamin Watson, who won a title with the New England Patriots in 2004.

“When we first got here, we all clicked together as one,” said running back Khiry Robinson, an undrafted rookie. “That comes from the vets, being taught from them, and watching them and picking it up. Each rookie has made a big impact on this squad. It comes from following up on those vets and learning and listening at the same time.”

Last Saturday, Robinson and undrafted cornerback Rod Sweeting offered the latest example of rookies making a mark this year.

With star cornerback Keenan Lewis out with a head injury, Sweeting — used almost exclusively on special teams — played 15 snaps. The Eagles scored on each of their last three possessions, but Sweeting limited receiver Riley Cooper to one 14-yard reception and two of 8 yards.

Then, with Thomas sidelined by a chest injury and Mark Ingram spent from rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown, Robinson was handed the ball three times in the last 4 minutes, 7 seconds of the game. He picked up 22 yards of a clock-draining, 34-yard drive that helped set up Graham for his memorable kick.

What Robinson and his youthful companions give back to their mentors doesn’t always surface on a stat sheet, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

“The young players a lot of the time — their excitement drives us,” Watson said. “This whole year, I’ve been going back to that ... fresh enthusiasm I had when it was my first couple of years in the league. As you get older and older, it turns more into a job sometimes, (though) we’re very fortunate to play in the NFL. ... But it’s always fun to see their excitement, and it permeates how you play the game.”

Said Moore: “These guys have done a great job of growing on the job. It’s fun. It makes your job simple because you don’t have to worry about them. They’re guys that have gotten that on-the-job training and have ... made plays for you. They make it easier for (veteran) guys to just go out and play.”

And they make it easier to envision the Saints accomplishing another first: winning road playoff games in back-to-back weeks.