Sean Payton guides Saints back to prominence after trying 2012

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    PHILADELPHIA — Chip Kelly and Nick Foles were too new to the NFL this season to have reputations and reams of damning statistics to label them. They were blank slates and that was to their advantage last week. In the run-up to Saturday night’s NFC wild-card game, the Eagles were the ingénues, while the Saints were the craggy veterans, their warts and foibles available for all to scrutinize.

    With their new sweatsuits packed away, while they chugged their different colored sports drinks, the Saints proved the advantage of age and perhaps hard-won wisdom. They beat the Eagles, 26-24, to advance to Divisional Round Weekend and retire one more wrinkle that had marred the Saints‘ beautiful recent history. It was the first road playoff victory in Saints lore and, more immediately, it was an impressive road triumph in a season that had featured so few of those that failure had suddenly come to define one of the NFL’s most successful franchises. And it came after an improbably somnolent first half, and after Drew Brees, himself laden with a reputation for being unable to play well in bad weather, had thrown two early interceptions, only to rally in the second half.

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    Until last season, the Saints had been one of the NFL’s most remarkable stories, woven into their city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina, producing one playoff team after another. The Saints seem poised to return to that glittering period, although a return trip to Seattle next week — where they lost 34-7 a month ago — might forestall another celebration. But the embarrassment of 2012, when coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season following the league’s investigation into bounty allegations and the team plunged under .500 without him, has receded — replaced, it seems, by the kind of motivation that the Saints tend to thrive on.

    After the victory, Payton was unusually introspective. He had spoken to the Saints about handling the last week, and the constant reminders of their weaknesses. He had told them they would carry their own history. He said there was something particularly satisfying about winning a game that was fought in the trenches, where the Saints relied on dominating at the line of scrimmage to rush for 185 yards. And that the drive out of Philadelphia would be nice, because he believes there is no better place to win a road game. But when the subject of last season was raised, he bristled, saying it felt fine to win in his return season and then quickly asking for another question while he pursed his lips and shook his head.

    Later, though, he returned to the subject briefly and it gave a window into the substantial chip that likely still resides on shoulders in New Orleans.

    “With all the other stuff, including last year, we’re sitting here with 12 wins,” Payton said, pointedly. “I’m extra proud of them.”

    The Saints remain an imperfect team. They are still handicapped by slow starts — they have yet to score a touchdown on the opening drive of a road game this season. The defense, which had held off the Eagles’ high-powered attack all night, nearly blew a 20-7 lead after Keenan Lewis was hurt and left the game. The offense, while dominating statistically — 434 yards to 256 and a time of possession margin of 34:53 to 25:07 — still was only 1 of 4 in the red zone, relying on four field goals, including the game-winner as time expired.

    But whatever happens in Seattle, arguably the NFL’s most difficult environment for visitors, this one victory capped Payton’s long trip back to the Saints sideline, bringing the team back almost exactly to wear he left it — in the playoff mix.

    “As much as we hate hearing that talk, we brought it on ourselves,” Brees said of the Saints‘ road struggles. “We came in with confidence. It’s not free or errors or mistakes.

    “It’s a new team. It really doesn’t matter what happened last year or in years past. We’re not living off the glory or mistakes of the past. We’re all about the here and now. We still can play better.”

    That is certainly so. But against a coach and quarterback in their first NFL playoffs, the Saints were the more experienced team, and that allowed Payton to stay the course with the running game when it became clear that it was working, even as the Eagles took a 7-6 lead into halftime. The Saints actually felt good about that margin, because Brees had already had his two interceptions and the Eagles had been unable to capitalize. So in the third quarter, they ran and ran, with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, softening up an Eagles defense that was determined to keep everything in front of them.

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    As the Eagles eventually began to chip away at the lead — after Lewis went out, Foles attacked with passes to DeSean Jackson — the Saints kept responding. The deep passes opened up — a 40-yarder to a wide-open Robert Meachem led to a fourth-quarter field goal. And the Eagles‘ struggle with kicking off deep, after they took a one-point lead, finally caught up with them. Darren Sproles reeled off a 39-yard return and drew a horse-collar tackle that added another 15 yards.

    From there, it was a matter of the Saints mixing in enough plays to keep moving, to keep the clock ticking, to keep moving them further away from the sullied reputation — on and off the field — that they were quietly in danger of being remembered for. Seattle might alter their course next week, but if Payton thought the ride out of Philadelphia would be nice, it was because the Saints finally seemed to be back on a smoother path.

    Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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