Historic, 11-minute, 29-second drive moves Saints to NFC title game

NEW ORLEANS -- The drive had a little bit of everything. Most importantly, it had a lot of New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas.

It took 18 plays, gained 92 yards and lasted 11 minutes, 29 seconds -- the longest postseason drive by any team in at least 20 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It was the longest drive of any Saints game, regular season or postseason, in that same time span.

In the end, Thomas’ 2-yard TD catch gave the top-seeded Saints their first lead of the game and allowed them to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive with a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

The Saints will host the NFC Championship Game for the second time in franchise history next Sunday against the No. 2-seeded Los Angeles Rams.

“It was tough. I mean, it was one of the hardest drive I’ve been a part of,” Saints guard Larry Warford said of a drive that actually lasted 22 plays and forced the Saints to gain a total of 117 yards because of three offensive penalties and one defensive penalty. “I was out of breath getting down there ... and everybody is tired. But you smell the end zone and you can’t give it away. You worked too hard for it when we were driving, and we finished it.

“When you start getting that momentum, those types of drives, you smell that vulnerability. You can smell that they’re getting tired. You can see it; you can feel it.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees laughed when he said someone told him they gained 117 yards.

“I’m not sure if that’s a record,” Brees said. “We went on a 117-yard drive to take the lead in the third quarter and really didn’t look back. That was the turning point the game.”

Sunday’s entire game was basically a survival for the Saints, who came out rusty after their first-round bye and immediately fell behind 14-0 thanks to a Brees interception on the first play of the game and two quick TD drives by the Eagles on their first two possessions.

And it wasn’t comfortably over until Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore came up with his second huge interception of the game with 1:52 remaining and the Eagles driving toward a potential score.

The Saints’ comeback also included a successful fake punt and a TD pass from Brees to Keith Kirkwood on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter for their first score of the game.

But it was that historic drive, which pretty much lasted the entire third quarter, that defined the Saints’ survival.

They committed four penalties on the drive, if you include the holding call on the punt return that made them start at their own 8-yard line. And one of those -- a holding call against left guard Andrus Peat -- nullified a potential 46-yard TD pass from backup QB Taysom Hill to running back Alvin Kamara.

Brees also missed on a potential 46-yard TD pass to Hill one play earlier. And the Saints also got backed up by a phantom holding call against center Max Unger that made the Superdome erupt in anger when they showed the replay on the big screen.

But the Saints just kept on surviving. A 20-yard pass from Brees to Thomas on second-and-20. A 20-yard pass from Brees to Thomas on third-and-16. A total of three third-down conversions on the drive. A 15-yard run by Kamara on first-and-15. And the TD pass to Thomas, with a defender draped on his back, on first-and-goal from the 2.

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, who just returned from a lingering pectoral injury, said he didn’t even bother celebrating with Thomas after the TD catch.

“Hell no. I had to find the oxygen,” Armstead said. “But the fact we ended that with a touchdown, it was all worth it. Just having a drive like that, starting on our 8 and just pushing, pushing, pushing … that was a huge drive for us going forward.

“A drive we can look back on and just know we’re capable.”

Saints coach Sean Payton lauded the team for the fight it showed.

“The third down that Drew converts to Mike was huge. There were too many plays specifically to [review it all]. But we hung in there and fought through it, and that was encouraging,” said Payton, who praised Thomas for coming up big yet again. “He’s got real strong hands in traffic. He’s tough and competitive.

“Man, he’s one of those players who believes he can make those types of plays -- and Drew did a good job of finding him. Those were significant plays that really changed the direction of the game.”

Thomas, who was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time this year, finished the game with 12 catches for 171 yards and the TD.

Who knew he was just getting warmed up when he set franchise records with 125 catches and 1,405 receiving yards this season?

Although Thomas, nicknamed “Can’t Guard Mike,” said all the right things about just doing his part and doing what the team needed, he didn’t hesitate when asked if he wants to be defined by plays like those third-and-16 and second-and-20 catches.

“Oh, every time. Every time. When Drew Brees is back there, if he has guys in his face … I’m gonna give it my all and I’m gonna make those plays for my teammates,” Thomas said. “I wanted to prove to him that if he let the ball go, then I would take care of myself.

“And even on that big drive, where it backed up, I told him, ‘I’ll take over this whole drive for you right now.’ And that’s what I did.”

Thomas said it feels like he and Brees have just been building their connection every week.

“When we’re out there, we feel like no one can stop us,” Thomas said. “I have his back, he has my back, we have each other’s back. We just have a thing, and it’s gonna be hard for teams to stop.”

Thomas’ previous best moment of the season came against the Rams the last time they were in the Superdome, in Week 9, when he made the game-clinching, 72-yard TD catch in a 45-35 win and pulled a cell phone out from under the goal post as his celebration.

It will be fascinating to see what he has planned for an encore next week.