PHILADELPHIA – Rob Ryan declared his intentions without ever saying a word.
The blustery defensive coordinator came out on a blustery Saturday night with an old photo of his dad emblazoned on his play sheet. There Ryan was, gray locks flying, positioned right behind the laminated visage of Buddy in the Eagles cap he wore when he coached here. It was a shot not only at the opponents, standing across the field with their offense-minded head coach, but maybe also at the Dallas Cowboys, who rid themselves of Ryan last summer. Rob and Buddy were going to take them all down. We're going to beat you for the present, Ryan seemed to announce, and we're going to beat you for the past.
The Saints did both on Saturday, beating Philadelphia 26-24 in the first round of the NFC playoffs and continuing a revenge tour that has lasted all season.
The Saints can't win on the road. The Saints can't move the ball in the cold. The Saints can't win on the ground. The Saints can't win with defense.
The Saints did all of the above, getting their first road playoff win in their history, with a squelching front four, a suffocating final drive and finally, the literal kicker: four field goals from a guy who has been so expendable in this league that there were times he had to shag his own practice kicks.
Quarterback Drew Brees, dressed snappily in a suit that made him look like a presidential candidate, was his usual diplomatic self in the news conference after his team's win, avoiding any direct shots at the media coverage all season, but his teammates were blunt in their feelings about being reminded of their road woes.
"It gets annoying," said receiver Lance Moore.
"I watched [ESPN reporter] Sal Paolantonio bring it up 45 times on Friday," said center Zach Strief.
It was Ryan, however, who blitzed the franchise's 0-5 road playoff history early in the week, bringing his squad together and saying, "I'm undefeated in the playoffs."
Yes, Ryan has coached in Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas, but the message received by the Saints is this: I'm here, and I do not care what came before. He has a young, athletic front four that can get at the quarterback without blitzing, and that has given fits, to QBs from Matt Ryan in Week 1 to Nick Foles in Week 18.
"We just weren't executing," Foles said. "I was missing throws and the Saints' defense was doing a great job."
The New Orleans defensive line, by holding the edge and putting just enough pressure on Foles, kept the league's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, to a meager 77 yards on the ground. The Saints' Mark Ingram had 97. Yes, the air-it-out Saints beat one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league by keeping the ball on the ground.
"I don't know if anyone would play us," Strief said with a chuckle, "and come out looking for that."
It's time for the rest of the league to start looking for Ryan's gang. The Saints' front is better than it was in their Super Bowl season in '09, and they are capable of winning with defense even when Brees isn't at his best. The vibe Ryan has created is a blend of edge and mirth, and that works perfectly with a group of players that don't have a ton of experience. Fun curve balls are thrown in, like switching to green Gatorade and bringing Popeye's on the team flights. Ryan even gives his blitzes silly names, like "Lobster" and "Hard Knocks," and that gets the banter going all week leading up to a game. Then, when kickoff comes, he's as amped as his wild hair suggests. After the Eagles' first touchdown Saturday, Ryan gathered his players and gave what Cameron Jordan called an "oorah speech." At that point it was 7-6 Eagles, and soon it was 20-7 Saints. The speech worked; this season the speeches have worked often.
"He gets over-enthused sometimes," said linebacker Junior Galette. "We have to calm him down."
"Over-enthused" could also describe head coach Sean Payton and his offense, who have their own scores to settle after the Bounty scandal sidelined the coach all last year. Saturday's playoff victory shows again how much Payton was missed, and how much he missed his team. That too has carried through the entire fall.
"We were more excited to get back to work this year," Moore said. "I wouldn't say it got to be routine, but we had all our dogs back. It was like old times."
Old times on offense, new times on defense. And a little of both on special teams, too. The Saints' game-winning drive, which bled out the game's final 4:54, started with a 39-yard kick return by veteran Darren Sproles, who was horse-collared at the end of the run to move the ball into Eagles territory. Brees and his running backs did the rest, leaving three seconds for Shayne Graham, who was brought in to replace the struggling Garrett Hartley last month. The Saints are the 10th team for Graham and "the 14th or 15th contract," he guessed afterward. Graham's winning kick may have earned him a level of comfort after years of moving all over and rarely getting the appreciation he hoped to win. There were times, he said, when he was picking up his own missed kicks, with no one around to help.
"Frustration," he said, "comes in many forms."
Saints owner Tom Benson walked into the winning locker room with his wife and made a beeline for Graham to congratulate him. All three of them beamed like old pals. The nomadic kicker won the Saints' first playoff game away from home. How perfect.
The revenge tour continues in the ideal setting: Seattle, where the Seahawks obliterated the Saints on national TV on Dec. 2. After that 34-7 mauling, most football-watchers fired up the old can't-win-away-from-the-Superdome argument. Now it'll be a week of ugly replays from the washout in the Seattle rain.
"It's a storyline," Strief said. "We can't beat them."
That's fine with the Saints. They're eager to hear the chatter. They'll simply remind themselves and each other that they are undefeated since they switched to green Gatorade, undefeated since they started bringing Popeye's on the plane and undefeated on the road in the playoffs since Sean Payton came back and Rob Ryan brought his dad to work.
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