The NFL gods can be awfully cruel sometimes but early Sunday night they smiled down on the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It came in the form of a dropped pass by usually sure-handed Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery at the Saints’ 23-yard line with his team driving for a potential go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter of their NFC divisional game.
Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore showed up at the right place at the right time to cradle Jeffery’s drop, preserving a gritty 20-14 comeback win and sending the Black and Gold into next Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Superdome (Fox, 2:05 p.m.).
It sets up a rematch won by the Saints 45-35 in Week 9 at the Superdome.
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The Rams had earned their way into the title match Saturday night with a 30-22 victory against the Dallas Cowboys at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. They had to wait until early Sunday night to learn the identity of their opponent and the game site.
Both were uncertain until Lattimore’s second INT of the game.
Jeffery had settled down in front of Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone and seemed poised to move the Eagles inside the red zone at the two minute warning, yards closer to potentially overturning a 20-14 deficit and keeping their Super Bowl dream alive.
Saints kicker Wil Lutz aided their cause, missing a 52-yard field goal attempt wide right only moments earlier that would have extended the lead to nine points and made it a two-score game.
Jeffery had never dropped a pass in 34 previous targets in the postseason, including 18 during the Eagles’ dramatic run to Super Bowl LII glory. But there’s always a first time, and it came Sunday night with a berth in the NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams hanging in the balance.
Congrats to Lattimore, who also had a huge INT in the second quarter with the Saints trailing 14-0, breathing heavy and reeling on the ropes. His defensive gem came at a crucial time of the game and eventually led to a 2-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from QB Drew Brees to WR Keith Kirkwood midway through the second quarter.
Truth be told, Lattimore’s second INT could have been made by any NFL defensive back worth his weight. It came gift-wrapped into his waiting arms from football heaven.
As the play unfolded and Lattimore returned the pick to the Saints 33, the sellout crowd erupted, knowing their beloved team had moved one step closer to Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. Saints defenders celebrated the moment while Jeffery lay face down on the turf, blaming himself, knowing the Eagles’ title defense had come to a screeching halt.
My thoughts turned immediately to Saints safety Marcus Williams, the unwitting victim of the “Minneapolis Miracle’‘ a year ago today (Jan. 14, 2018). No need to exhume the painful details from that stunning divisional 29-24 loss as time expired.
And now here the Saints are one year later, on the cusp of playing for a second Lombardi Trophy, truly experiencing the meaning of no pain, no gain.
I only wish Marcus Williams could have been the beneficiary of Alshon Jeffrey’s unexpected gift. It would have been a fitting conclusion to what must have been a difficult year for him and those who know and love him.