Saints lean on Michael Thomas during historic, go-ahead drive

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.

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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.

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 Drew 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 holding calls — against left guard Andrus Peat — nullified a potential 46-yard TD pass from backup QB Taysom Hill to running back Alvin Kamara.

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.

“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 Saints coach Sean 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.”

A look at the 18-play touchdown drive that gave the Saints the lead for the first time Sunday against the Eagles. It was the longest scoring drive in the playoffs in the last 20 seasons.

Thomas finished the game with 12 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown.

Thomas, known as “Can’t Guard Mike,” was named a first-team All-Pro this year after setting franchise records with 125 catches and 1,405 receiving yards in his third NFL season, to go with nine TD catches. And his 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.

Who knew all of that was just a warm-up act for bigger and better to come?