Saints 20, Eagles 14: Magic Runs Out, Season Ends in New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS - Two months ago, they were 4-6 and left for dead after a 41-point loss in this very stadium.

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On Sunday, the Eagles showed the world that they're a different team. They battled and they fought the top-seeded Saints but fell a play or two short of becoming only the third team in NFL history to reach an NFC Championship Game after opening a season 4-6.

They went farther than anybody could have dreamed two months ago. They showed that they never quit and they'll always fight. 

That doesn't make this any easier to take.

Saints 20, Eagles 14. 

And for the third time in the last decade, the Eagles led the Saints at halftime of a playoff game and lost.

Super Bowl or no Super Bowl, this one will hurt for a long time.

Here are tonight's 10 Instant Observations from the Superdome:

1. Right through Alshon Jeffery's hands. There was no doubt in my mind before that play the Eagles were coming back and winning this game. This is what Nick Foles does. This is what the Eagles do. No matter how ugly a game is, they keep battling and they eventually find a way to win. It was happening again. Despite getting outplayed for almost the entire last three quarters, they had a 1st-and-10 on the Saints' 27-yard line down six points just before the two-minute warning. This is Foles Time. And then the nightmarish play, a perfect pass to Jeffery goes through his hands and gets picked off by Marshon Lattimore. Game. After the run to the Super Bowl last year, after the way Foles has rallied this team game after game, after the comeback win in Chicago, I think we all just visualized Foles getting those 27 final yards and the Eagles advancing to the NFC Championship Game. I still can't believe how it ended. 

2. I have no idea how Jeffery missed that one. He's got incredible hands and it would have been one of the easier catches he's made. But I can't be too hard on him. He's been incredible. He's made so many difficult catches and big catches at key moments. For this one to end with a ball bouncing off his hands at the 19-yard line … it's hard to take. But I'll take Jeffery on my team any day of the week.

3. I thought the defense really hung in there and played extremely tough in a building where they allowed 49 points eight weeks ago. You just can't ask a defense to play this long in this building against this quarterback. The offense was so ineffective the last three quarters the Saints had the ball 32:38 and the Eagles 12:22. You can't play defense that way. On the road for the fifth time in six weeks and under-manned? They had to be gassed. Eventually, Drew Brees is going to make you pay. With Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Rasul Douglas and Michael Bennett all banged up and on and off the field, I don't know how much more the D could have done. This is one of the highest-scoring offenses in NFL history, and the defense kept the Eagles in the game. If you told me Sunday morning the Saints would score 20 points, I would have bet my house the Eagles would have won.

4. If you didn't realize how valuable Brandon Brooks was before Sunday night it couldn't be any clearer. Without him, they're just not the same offense. The guy is so consistently dominating. He doesn't give up anything. Honestly, he means as much to the offense as Cox means to the defense. Stefen Wisniewski is an OK backup, but the drop-off from Brooks to Wisniewski is huge. Without Brooks, the Eagles just never got back in the rhythm they were in their first two drives. 

5. Same with Douglas. He did eventually come back into the game in the third quarter, but it was clear the ankle was still bothering him. He's been so good down the stretch. As soon as he was sidelined, Brees started picking on Josh Hawkins, who the Eagles just promoted from the practice squad the day after Christmas and had never played a defensive snap in an Eagles uniform. At the point Hawkins entered the game, he was the 10th cornerback the Eagles have used this year, and Brees went right after him for the Saints' first TD. When Hawkins returned to the game after Avonte Maddox got hurt, Brees went right after him again and converted a big 3rd-and-13. You're just not going to shut down a Hall of Fame QB when you have to go 10 deep on the depth chart.

6. The Eagles had so much momentum after they took the 14-0 lead and they had so many chances to build on it. If only Brandon Graham controlled that fumble deep in Saints territory. If only the Eagles stopped the Saints' fake punt deep in their territory. If only Foles hadn't under-thrown Zach Ertz down the left sideline when he got picked off. You can add Jeffery's drop to the list. The Eagles were one big play from really taking command of this game, but it never happened, and with a team like the Saints, it's not enough to just punch ‘em in the mouth once, you've got to keep punching ‘em in the mouth, and the Eagles just couldn't do it.

7. I don't know if I've ever seen a player grow more during a season than Cre'Von LeBlanc has this year. Here's a guy who's been released by the Patriots, Bears and Lions. A guy who couldn't even stick on the practice squad of a six-win Lions team this year. And honestly, his first few games here this year weren't anything special. But he's taken ownership of that nickel spot, and his INT of Brees on the first play of the game was a real message 14 seconds into the game that this was a different Eagles team than the one that lost 48-7 here just eight weeks ago.

8. I have to single out Cox here because he is such a gamer, and he was playing in the fourth quarter - and playing really well - with an injury that would have had a lot of guys in the locker room. He's an all-time great, and he showed it once again Sunday.

9. This is hard to believe, but the last three times the Eagles have blown a halftime lead in the postseason it's been against the Saints. It happened in 2006 here, when they led 14-13 at halftime and lost 27-24, and it happened at the Linc in 2013, when they led 7-6 and lost 26-24.

10. One thing I think this postseason proved - and Sunday's game really cemented - is that the Eagles desperately need a featured running back. A talented, young, versatile, multi-dimensional back who can run, catch and block. Darren Sproles - even if he does come back - is going to be a role player. Wendell Smallwood's effort is tremendous, but he's not an every-down back. Neither is Corey Clement. And it's clear from Josh Adams' sudden invisibility that the Eagles aren't sold on him. I think it's the Eagles' biggest need moving forward.

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