The narratives had been hastily written and tightly packaged in a nice glittery bow. The New Orleans Saints simply can't win a playoff game outside the comfy confines of the Superdome and you’re a homer, an idiot, or Sean Payton himself if you think otherwise.
But New Orleans strung together an unlikely dominance on the ground without starting running back Pierre Thomas, and the defense held arguably the most dangerous offense in the NFL to a mere 24 points in the organization's first ever road playoff victory. While history will look valiantly on Mark Ingram's impressive 97-yard, one touchdown game, or Shayne Graham, who booted the game-winning kick just a couple weeks removed from his couch at home, it won’t be as kind to the most impressive reason why New Orleans was able to secure a rematch with the Seahawks in Seattle.
The real heroes of this game won't be remembered, but it is their contribution that allowed Ingram to run and set up Graham to kick -- the play of the offensive line. The Saints absolutely dominated in the trenches last Saturday and it showed up on the stat sheet. New Orleans rushed for 185 yards behind the big boys up front, stunning Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and providing a balance to Drew Brees’ prolific passing game that kept Philadelphia guessing for most of the game.
Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, whom some had labeled a bust after his first start against the Kraken Greg Hardy from Hogwarts, proved himself in a major way against the Eagles’ best pass rusher, Trent Cole. Armstead gave up only one sack and helped tremendously in run blocking to set up Ingram’s career day on the ground. His learning curve is still a little steep, but once you remember this is only his third career start, you get the feeling he’ll be protecting Brees’ blind side for a long, long time.
The Saints’ two Pro Bowlers up front, Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, looked every bit as worthy of a trip to Hawaii as anyone else against an aggressive Philadelphia front hell-bent on disrupting Brees and suffocating what was considered a watered-down rushing attack with the absence of Thomas. Grubbs played one of his best games of the season and Evans proved his worth by excelling both in pass and run blocking all night long in helping secure the win.
Even tackle Zach Strief, who has been the recipient of much criticism over the past two years (most of it from me), played an amazing four quarters and had quite possibly the best day of all the linemen. Strief’s enormous frame and quick feet kept the Eagles out of the backfield and allowed Ingram and company to wear down Philly’s front seven for one of the team’s biggest wins.
It’s no secret that in the NFL, winning at the line of scrimmage almost always translates to winning on the scoreboard. The big guys up front are always fodder to fans and media members when they give up a bunch of sacks or fail to make blocks, but they seem to be forgotten when they do their job so well it makes everyone else on the offense look good.
Let’s not let that happen.