NEW ORLEANS -- It all came down to a pass thrown right into a receiver's hands. Even if he caught it, the New Orleans Saints had defenders in position to make the tackle well short of a score. But then suddenly, inexplicably, maddeningly ... the unthinkable happened.
"If you play this game long enough," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, "you're going to be part of some crazy stuff."
The ball bounced off the hands of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery for only his third drop of the season and landed softly in those of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The interception sealed the Saints' 20-14 victory, sending them to next week's NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams for a chance to head to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009.
When reporters entered the Saints' locker room, remnants of a dance-club fog machine still wafted through the air. But the haze did little to cloud long-term memories. It was lost on no one that Lattimore's interception came nearly one year to the day after the Saints were eliminated from the divisional playoff round by another freaky play.
"Things happen," Lattimore said. "Last year, on the touchdown, Marcus Williams missed a tackle. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Alshon Jeffery is a good receiver with great hands, and then things happen [again]. You have to capitalize on that."
How unlikely was it that Jeffery would drop a pass from Eagles quarterback Nick Foles? This season, Jeffery caught 27 of 33 targets from Foles. His career drop percentage of 2.6 percent (19 of 736 targets) is better than all but six NFL pass-catchers with at least 400 receptions over that period, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. You're talking about one of this decade's most sure-handed receivers dropping an easy pass from one of the most clutch postseason quarterbacks in recent memory.
But this is the kind of thing that happens when the Saints play at home in the playoffs. It's no accident that they are 6-0 at the Superdome in the postseason since coach Sean Payton was hired in 2006. We all like to use data and tangible facts to explain wins and losses. But I defy you to sit in the Superdome for a playoff game and not feel the energy it produces for the home team.
Even when they trailed 14-0, it never felt like the Saints were anywhere close to done. Lattimore started the comeback in the second quarter when he jumped over Eagles tight end Zach Ertz to grab his first interception. We then watched as the Saints' offense found its way and the Eagles stalled out. The Eagles jumped offside twice. On multiple occasions, they aborted checks at the line, according to Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan.
A crowd of 73,027 fans screamed and stomped so hard that the press box literally shook. This is the kind of atmosphere that makes players with elite hands drop the ball. It's what made a Hall of Fame quarterback panic 10 seasons ago and throw across his body in the game's final seconds. (Yes, the Saints advanced to their only Super Bowl in 2009 in part because cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Vikings quarterback Brett Favre to force overtime.)
"The advantage," Jordan said, "is real."
Lattimore, meanwhile, said he has not heard the Superdome any louder during two seasons in New Orleans. And make no mistake: His big game couldn't have come at a better time for a team that will need to defeat two of the top four scoring offenses to win Super Bowl LIII.
Lattimore faded from the national radar this season after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2017. Part of his disappearance was due to a drop in interceptions, from five to two. But he also struggled in coverage at times, most notably in an awful Week 1 matchup against Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans.
"That's like my brother," Saints receiver Michael Thomas said of Lattimore. "[W]hen he makes a play, I get a different type of heartbeat. I love him, man. I always have to stay in his ear, and I tell him he's capable of making those type of plays. He's that guy on defense. And as long as he stays focused and locks in on his assignment, the sky's the limit. And that's just a testament to him not folding, not getting frustrated and staying in the game. I'm proud of him. He grew up today."
With Lattimore back to making game-changing plays, and the Superdome set to host the NFC Championship Game, it's not difficult to see the Saints advancing to their second Super Bowl. If the game is at all close in the fourth quarter, the Saints have a massive and undeniable advantage.
"We've been on both sides of it," Payton said. "We've played in some tough road venues where it's real loud. Minnesota, Seattle, and we play at home here. That's one of the reasons why you fight so hard for the best seed you can -- so that you have the chance to play with the [crowd] in your favor."