Saints a giving team on day of taking

JOHN EISENBERG

January 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- If there was one great truth underscoring yesterday's NFC wild-card game, informally known as The Pro Bowl of Last Resort, it was that something had to give.

Actually, not give -- for once.

The Saints and Eagles brought to the occasion postseason records equal in their abject futility. The Eagles had not won a playoff game in 13 years. And the Saints, the poor Saints, had never won one, a distinction held alone among the NFL's 28 franchises.

(Even the ragamuffin Cardinals and Bucs have somehow managed to win one apiece -- against the Eagles in both cases, by the way. Does this theme pull together or what?)

Of course, it wouldn't be fair to characterize either the Saints or Eagles as no-account bottom-rungers; they're consistently credible outfits that have won a combined 63.8 percent of their regular-season games over the last five years. But they also had a combined 0-6 playoff record in those five years, getting outscored 148-61, with four of the six losses at home.

Their postseason matching yesterday was, if you will, sort of a high-profile church league championship, with the church being Our Lady of the Ultimately Disastrous (And Often Calamitous).

It certainly was the only game of the playoff weekend in which the players were screaming from angst, not excitement.

You kept waiting for Pat Summerall to tell us that the broadcast was being sponsored by "the good people who brought you the Heimlich Maneuver."

Ah, don't get me started.

Anyway, the Eagles wound up winning on the strength of a

startling 29-point volley in the last 20 minutes, after which the Eagles' Keith Byars was asked to assess the difference and uttered this pearl: "We know how to win in the playoffs."

Right. Sure.

Actually, one can surmise that the Eagles did learn how to win in the playoffs yesterday. Just play the Saints.

The "Who Dat?" home team was downright iron-hearted yesterday, at least in comparison with the Oilers, who blew a 32-point lead to Buffalo in the first game of the day. But, by any other measure, the Saints were horrifyingly uptight when it counted.

The Eagles were behind and in apparent dutch all afternoon, and should be commended for remaining cool in intimidating circumstances. But, befitting a wild-card matchup in which both cards were (playoff) jokers, the Saints gave the game away.

Check it out: They were up 13 and had the ball with 20 minutes left, having scored on three of their last four possessions with a slick mixture of possession passes and misdirection rushes. Basic, safe stuff, run brilliantly.

So, up 13, what does Saints coach Jim Mora call on first down? A long pass. Thrown by a quarterback, Bobby Hebert, who hasn't thrown long effectively since the Paleozoic Era. Or at least college.

His lob was easily intercepted, setting up a field goal that gave the Eagles a reason to begin believing. "You saw that pass and you knew that [Hebert] was getting rattled," the Eagles' Byron Evans said.

On the next series, the Saints faced a third-and-one at their 24, a perfect situation for 260-pound fullback Ironhead Heyward. Mora called a run, but Hebert changed the play at the line and, pressured, misfired on a slant-in.

The Eagles got the ball back and scored on a third-and-10 pass. Then, on the first play after the kickoff, Hebert threw into coverage and was intercepted. "I knew it was over," Evans said, and while maybe it was a little soon, the Eagles did score a touchdown and never look back.

The final minutes included the ignominy of a safety and another interception of Hebert, this one returned for a touchdown by cornerback Eric Allen after being aimed squarely at his chest.

"Nice pattern," Eagles backup quarterback Jim McMahon said to Allen on the sidelines.

The Superdome emptied out in a hurry after that. At least it's a great town in which to drown sorrows.

All week, the local paper had been full of stories about nervous fans and Saints players determined to right their playoff wrongs. But when the Saints finally did lose, pushing the franchise playoff record to 0-4, they basically shrugged it off. Maybe they were just stunned, having dug a deeper hole when they thought they'd hit bottom. But in their not-so-downbeat locker room, they carried on as if it wasn't that big a deal to them. Of course, it probably wasn't. Happens every year.

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