When you get to the quarterfinals of the NFL playoffs – as the New Orleans Saints had this past weekend – there are no easy outs.
At that point, everybody still playing is capable of winning. At that point, everybody is playing well or they wouldn't be playing at all. What's more, the Saints were going against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, coming off a huge road victory over the Chicago Bears.
Nevertheless, the Saints surely had no idea advancing to the conference finals would be so stressful, so physically and emotionally taxing – and, in the end, so rewarding. The Saints survived, 20-14. If these Saints go on to win the second Super Bowl in franchise history, there will be no doubt about when they faced their greatest moment of truth.
Listen: The Eagles intercepted Drew Brees' first pass. The Eagles scored like taking a walk in the park on their first two possessions. The Eagles led 14-0 early. After 11 minutes, the Eagles had gained 151 yards; the Saints had gained not one. What's more, the Saints had lost by far their best interior lineman, Sheldon Rankins to a dreaded Achilles tendon injury. Rankins was done. Indeed, if the Super Bowl were in May, Rankins could not play.
What happened after that wasn't so much magical as it was a two-and-a-half-hour grind. The Saints called on all that they are – everything – to eventually prevail. They called on Drew Brees' arm, Michael Thomas' big, sure hands, Alvin Kamara's legs, their defense's great speed, Taysom Hill's remarkable versatility and Sean Payton's daring in order to prevail.
They needed every last bit of it – particularly Payton's daring. The Saints pay Payton handsomely – about $9 million a year – and he earned it all Sunday. The man who once had the audacity to kick onsides to begin the second half of a Super Bowl, faked a punt early in the second quarter and later went for it on fourth and goal at the 2-yard line when most coaches would have settled for three points.
The fake punt – Hill converted when it seemed he couldn't possibly – seemed to spark the Saints. After the Eagles' dominant first 11 minutes, the Saints out-gained them 420 yards to 99. Amazingly, 117 of those 420 yards came on one drive. That's right. Because of three penalties for 25 yards, the Saints 92-yard drive to take the lead, actually covered 117 yards. It was a study in perseverance.
And so now, the Saints advance to face the Los Angeles Rams, a team that rushed for 273 yards and nearly six yards per running play in defeating the Dallas Cowboys 30-22 last Saturday.
You've got the Rams, who just gashed the physically-imposing Cowboys, going against the Saints, who are missing their best run-stuffer in Rankins. Make no mistake, Rankins served as the anchor of the New Orleans defense this season.
Every other Saints defender must raise his game a notch or two to make up for Rankins' absence. That is particularly true of linebacker Demario Davis, the former Brandon High Bulldog, who should finally receive recognition for being the elite NFL linebacker he is. Davis, who led the Saints in tackles during the 2018 season, led them again Sunday when he was in on eight tackles, five he accomplished by himself.
This is Davis's seventh year in the league, his first with the Saints. Sunday was his first playoff game.
That's probably why he wasn't named All-Pro or to the Pro Bowl this season when surely he played well enough for both. At times, Davis closes so fast on a ball carrier or a passer, he seems shot out of a cannon, a blur. And yet, nobody has seemed to notice.
“That's really been the storyline of my life,” Davis said in a conversation last month. “I've always flown under the radar – all the way back to high school.”
He'll not fly under anybody's radar Sunday. For the Saints to slow the Rams offense enough to win this one, Davis will have to be at the top of his game.
He was this past Sunday. After the first 11 minutes, all the Saints were. But then, they had to be.
Rick Cleveland is a Hattiesburg native and an award-winning sports columnist in Mississippi. Email Rick Cleveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.