NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn’t mysterious, complex, or even surprising, the play that permanently changed the flow of Sunday’s NFC divisional round playoff game.
The Eagles left their defense on the field after stopping a Mark Ingram run short of the sticks, on third-and-1 at the New Orleans Saints’ 30, a little more than three minutes into the second quarter. They figured the Saints might not punt, even when Saints coach Sean Payton sent punter Thomas Morstead onto the field.
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Sure enough, the snap went short, to backup quarterback/jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill, who burrowed into the middle of the line, as Eagles All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox grabbed his own right leg and fell backward.
Hill gained 4 yards and a first down. Cox left the field, didn’t return until the second half, had to leave again, then came back again. After the 20-14 loss that ended the Eagles’ season, Cox was wearing a black fabric walking boot. He said he didn’t know what he had injured. (Spoiler alert: He pretty much had to know what he had injured, he just didn’t want to say, pending tests Monday.)
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The Saints would end up driving 79 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a fourth-and-2 pass from Drew Brees to former Temple receiver Keith Kirkwood, who was covered by Josh Hawkins, a Dec. 26 call-up from the practice squad, playing because of an injury to Rasul Douglas.
“I don’t know what happened. I’m going to the doctor, so I’ll know [Monday]," Cox said. He said he didn’t know how the injury happened, he just suddenly felt pain.
“I’ll tell you what, man, I’ll do anything for this team. You’d probably have to cut one of my limbs off for me to not be out there with those guys,” Cox said.
“I think we had it stopped. I got banged-up, had to go down. At the end of the day, they got a first down, we didn’t get a stop on downs.”
Before the fake-punt play, the Saints had run six times for 2 yards. With Cox out for the rest of that drive, they gained 16 yards on three carries, and they finished the day with 137 rushing yards on 31 carries.
Malcolm Jenkins said there was no trickery involved in the fake.
“They just moved the pile.”
Jenkins said the Saints earned their momentum shift – “they got the fake punt and they scored on fourth down.”
Brandon Graham said: “They just got good push up the middle.”
Graham said the Eagles were calling out to one another that it was going to be a fake.
“I couldn’t believe they ran it” despite that, he said. “It just sucked, man. That was the key play of the game, because they scored seven off of that.”
Hill told reporters in the Saints locker room that he had the final call on whether to go ahead with the fake. If he hadn’t gotten the yardage, the Eagles would have taken over the ball on New Orleans’ 30 with a 14-0 lead. A three-score advantage would have been there for the asking. Hill credited Payton’s “gutsy call.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson turned down a holding penalty that would have made it third-and-11 instead of fourth-and-1, an understandable decision, facing Brees.
“They were kind of late getting lined up and we liked our matchup there,” Hill said. “Coach Payton and [special teams coach Mike] Westhoff have a lot of trust in our guys up front. We knew that we could do it. We knew that we needed to create momentum for ourselves. … That’s a [defensive] look that we thought we were going to get, and we did. I wasn’t going to be denied.”
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Payton said: “I trust Taysom a lot. He’s a powerful runner, and generally the looks that are somewhat favorable also come with some risk, especially where we were in the game.”
Payton added that even though it was early, he felt the need for a momentum swing was great enough to make the risk worthwhile.
Nobody should have expected anything other than for Hill to take the ball and run with it. Looking for a replay during the game, if you had searched for “Taysom Hill run on fake punt,” you would have initially gotten the video from when he picked up a first down that way against the Ravens in October.
“They got movement. They made a play, we didn’t,” Eagles safety Corey Graham said. “Those guys made some gutsy calls all day.”
The fake was actually the second shoe to hit the squandered momentum floor. The Saints had the ball because, on second-and-8 from the Eagles’ 46, Nick Foles underthrew an open Zach Ertz and was intercepted by Marshon Lattimore.
Pederson said he thought the Eagles would have scored again, had they completed that pass to Ertz.
“It kind of changed at that point,” he said. “Credit the Saints for executing.”
The Eagles seemed to have kept that play from mattering much, when they held Alvin Kamara to a 1-yard gain on second-and-2, then stuffed Ingram.
But everything was different after the Saints got within 14-7.
“You kind of expect [the fake] in that situation,” Pederson said. “It’s fourth-and-1. You just have to be prepared for that. Again, it was just a great play by them.”
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