The offense was saved by an incredible performance from the running game, specifically Mark Ingram, and a dominant offensive line from top to bottom. Those two items were so good they made up for a dismal showing from Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Wait, what kind of bizarro world are we in right now? Mark Ingram and the o-line seriously bailed out Drew and Jimmy to help the Saints win a playoff game? That still feels weird to type. Basically the guys that have mostly sucked this year played awesome, and the guys that have been mostly awesome sucked. Opposite day, if you will. The Saints had 185 yards rushing (5.1 per carry) and gave up three hits on the QB all game. I'd say the game ball belongs squarely with the offensive line. On to the grades…
Drew Brees: C for the game (2.00 for the playoffs) I thought his first half performance was deserving of an F. Aside from two critical interceptions that killed momentum the offense had and put the team in a bad position, he was just off. Part of it in my opinion is he just does not trust his left tackle and it makes him antsy in the pocket and he's sometimes trying to release the ball before he even has to. He should trust Armstead, though, because overall I thought his performance was good. Brees was Saints at Falcons in 2012 bad, or 1st half of the Rams game bad in the first half. He was flagged for a false start on a 4th and 2 attempt to draw the Eagles offsides, and I thought that call was a 50-50 and easily could have been a first down for the Saints. He missed on throws and looked affected by the cold, specifically missing a gimme touchdown to Sproles on a deep ball that was grossly underthrown. At half I was left thinking he singlehandedly kept the Eagles in the game and was losing it for the team all by himself. He came out in the second half a different player, though, and while the offense leaned on its running game to win, Brees settled in and did what was needed to help the team win. He also had 5 carries for 13 yards, most of those sneaks, and each one of them converted for a first down which was critical in the short yardage situations. Sean Payton refuses to use that play in the regular season, I guess to keep Brees from getting hurt, but it was sorely needed and useful in this one. He finished 20 of 30 for 250 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. In the second half he was 10-12 for 152 yards and a touchdown, so he deserves an A for that, and an A and an F average out to a C. To say it was the tale of two halves for Brees would also be selling short how pronounced the difference was.
Mark Ingram: A+ (4.33) He carried the team on his back and ran like the runner the Saints thought they were getting when they traded up to get him in the 1st round. This was a statement game that may extend his future with the team after all. Not only was he physical and always falling forward, he seemed to have much better vision than usual, and better speed getting to the outside. Maybe the toe issue really did prevent him from playing well earlier in the season. Pierre Thomas' injury may have been a blessing in disguise, because it forced the Saints to unleash Ingram and Robinson in tandem and pound them more. He had 18 carries for 97 yards and a hard nosed touchdown. What sealed the A+ for me instead of the A, though, was a ridiculous and physical open field tackle he had on Bradley Fletcher following Brees' first pick. That may have saved a touchdown. He also had 3 catches for 17 yards, good ball security, and gave pass protection decent help.
Darren Sproles: B+ (3.33) Too bad Brees missed that deep ball as he was one on one with linebacker Connor Barwin and had roasted him. Sproles had 4 carries for 29 yards and 4 catches for 31 yards. His biggest contribution for once was on special teams, though. He averaged 10.3 yards on 3 punt returns and he had a 39 yard kickoff return with a 15 yard horse collar tacked on top to set up the final drive and game winning field goal. This wasn't one of those games where Sproles went nuts, but his contributions were extremely valuable.
Khiry Robinson: B+ (3.33) Like Ingram he just ran with wreckless abandon, good power and vision, and most importantly he hung on to the football. I feel like Payton has held back on fully trusting him this season due to ball security (he had issues in preseason) but I noticed he used good technique going through the hole putting two hands on the ball (twss). With PT out, he had to be trusted. And Khiry rewarded the coach and the team with a great Mark Ingram sub option. He had 8 carries for 45 yards and the offense never missed a beat when he was in.
Jed Collins: B- (2.67) Obviously when the run game is operating like they did, Jed Collins is a huge part of that. But it was less so than usual, as the Saints were often using multiple tight end sets to run. He blocked pretty well, though his biggest contribution was an assist on a Brees sneak where it looked close before Collins shoved Brees forward for an easy first down.
Marques Colston: C (2.00) Just 2 catches for 16 yards for Colston who was almost entirely a non factor in this one. The Eagles focused so much on Graham I was surprised he didn't get more action. He did come up with a big catch on the final drive to put the Saints squarely in field goal range and set up another 3rd and inches that would be converted. His blocking was excellent and the Saints took advantage of his big frame at the second level.
Lance Moore: B (3.00) Not much of a contribution in terms of receptions from Moore, either, but man that touchdown was huge. He had 2 catches for 31 yards and the score. He took on initial contact around the 5 and did a fantastic job getting into the end zone. For such a small frame that showed great power.
Kenny Stills: C+ (2.33) He had 3 catches for 35 yards and a run for 1 yard. No catch was bigger than his 14 yarder on 3rd and 12 that kept a drive alive that would ultimately result in a touchdown. The only negative is he is at least partially responsible for the first Brees interception by poorly running the deep route and trying to undercut the corner, and he had a chance to make a tackle inside the 10 but missed.
Robert Meachem: B (3.00) The Saints often went to him when they needed good blocking off the edge where they'd set him in motion and bring him close to the line of scrimmage before the hand off. If there's one thing he remains effective at, it's run blocking. He also had a big time 40 yard reception at a critical time.
Jimmy Graham: C+ (2.33) Just 3 catches for 44 yards for Graham. A quiet day for him. The cold and bump coverage at the line of scrimmage seems to take him out of games sometimes. But Brees didn't look his way much either.
Benjamin Watson: C+ (2.33) On the first scoring drive for the Saints they were going for a 4th and 1 and Watson had a horrible false start penalty that forced the Saints to settle for a Shayne Graham field goal. That is inexcusable. Other than that I thought his run blocking was very good for the most part. I did agree with Cris Collinsworth, though, that on a 3rd and long draw to Sproles that Watson being in the game instead of Graham was a pretty big tell on the Saints part. He also had a huge 27 yard reception which would eventually lead to the Ingram score.
Joshua Hill: C- (1.67) He had 1 catch for 9 yards, but his run blocking was poor and he was flagged for a holding penalty.
Terron Armstead: B- (2.67) I thought he did an admirable job handling Trent Cole, by far the Eagles' biggest pass rushing threat. Cole did get 1 sack but I thought Brees was as much to blame on that one as Armstead for not working the pocket as well as he normally does. He was also flagged once for holding. His run blocking was good overall. Most impressive is his lateral quickness. He clearly has great feet he just needs to get more physical and have better leverage with his hands. The good news is time in the weight room and practice with his technique will improve that stuff and it is much harder to teach good footwork. Things are looking up for Armstead, and I feel better about him being a possible long term solution.
Ben Grubbs: A (4.00) He sure looked like a Pro Bowler to me and I thought this was his best game of the season. A devastating difference he made in the trenches, getting excellent push off the line of scrimmage. He had some nice pulls, showing athleticism, and his pass blocking was picture perfect all day long.
Brian de la Puente: B (3.00) He had a holding penalty that condemned the Saints to a punt. Other than that, I thought he was largely excellent, too. Most critical was his physical presence in the trenches getting great interior push.
Jahri Evans: A (4.00) When he's right he is as good as it gets. A complete game from big Jahri who absolutely dominated the point of attack. The times he would get to the second level and get a hat on a linebacker, it wasn't pretty for the Eagles. His pass protection was exemplary, too.
Zach Strief: A (4.00) Strief has been arguably the best offensive lineman for the Saints this year. He's in a contract year, and a captain, and I think it's a must to have him back starting at right tackle next year. If I can only keep one between Strief and BDLP for next year, Strief is the only answer. Besides Graham I think he's the team's highest priority. Another rock solid performance, particularly protecting Brees where his massive stature gave the Eagles no path to the passer.
My Offensive Player of the Game: Mark Ingram