There have been games this season – four, to be exact – when the New Orleans Saints allowed fewer than the 201 passing yards they allowed Sunday in their 20-14 victory over Philadelphia in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And there have been games – 14, if you're counting – when they were able to generate at least one sack and create a feeding frenzy in the offensive backfield on passing plays.
But New Orleans (14-3) might not have had a better three-quarter stretch of pass defense this season than it did in its NFC Divisional playoff game victory over the Eagles.
Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles completed eight of nine passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter against the Saints; in the final three, he completed 10 of 22 for 88 yards and two interceptions.
Foles had completions of 37, 12, 12 and 30 yards in the first quarter. After a 14-yard completion to Alshon Jeffery to open the second quarter, and a 14-yarder to Darren Sproles on the first play of the Eagles' next possession, Foles had five completions of five yards or less in the final three quarters.
"It was good," Saints Coach Sean Payton said of the defensive effectiveness over the final three quarters. "Certainly was significant in our win. We made some adjustments, I thought we were able to pressure the quarterback. We didn't get the sacks you're looking for but we did get the pocket pushed and I thought that really helped the guys on the back end make some plays."
The back-end play was led by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who had two interceptions – one on each end of the Saints' streak of seven consecutive stops to finish out the game. New Orleans totaled six passes defensed and after Jeffery caught 30- and 14-yard passes on his first two targets, he added three catches for 19 yards on his next six targets.
Even the Eagles' quick passing game couldn't shake the Saints.
"That's part of the way they throw the football," Payton said. "It's going to be happening quick, it almost becomes part of the running game. Way back when, when (former San Francisco 49ers coach) Bill Walsh was putting together the West Coast offense, some of the principles were to have plays that basically gave you the same type of gains. So it's tough to defense relative to getting a sack. But our guys did a good job of tackling in space and limiting the big plays."
The Saints were able to settle in and dominate defensively for the final 45 minutes.
"When you look at those 14 points that were scored early, it came off of basically two big plays," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "We settled in, made our adjustments that we needed to and shut down the run game, made them one-dimensional throughout the second half and those three quarters. I think by the end of the game, we were the more physical team. Obviously, it got a little hairy at the end there when they got the ball back. But when guys are called upon to make big plays, we've come up with them."
ON THE RUN: Don't let the flash of the Los Angeles Rams' offense fool you, Payton said. At heart, the Saints' opponent in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday can run the ball extremely effectively and in their divisional playoff victory over Dallas, the Rams pounded and gashed the Cowboys for 273 yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries in a 30-22 victory.
C.J. Anderson (23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns) and Todd Gurley 16-115-1) each topped 100 yards rushing, and Anderson especially has been effective. Anderson signed with the Rams on Dec. 18 and in the final two regular-season games, ran for 299 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries.
Dallas allowed 94.6 rushing yards and 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season.
"I think, studying that team closely as we have – and they're a team we look at each week, (Coach) Sean (McVay) and those guys do a great job – but I think they've been a running team," Payton said. "Now, make no mistake about it, last week's game was super impressive.
"But I think when you study their wide zone and you study their punch play and you study some of the things that they like to do out of those formations, I think all of it sets up and compliments what they want to do in the play-action passing game and then lastly, in the dropback passing game. But I do think the addition of C.J. of late…that Cowboy run front, up until last week, has been pretty impressive all season. That made it that much more special when you really know how well Dallas has defended the run."