"We technically weren't supposed to be here, but we lost to a team that wasn't necessarily better than us," cornerback Cary Williams said. "They weren't better than us. Period. But they were better tonight."
Many fans in the sold-out Lincoln Financial Field stood after the kick went through the uprights and applauded the Eagles as they left the field. Kelly's inaugural season included a six-win turnaround from one year earlier and left the franchise in a promising position. But the Eagles head coach also needed to give a season-ending address sooner than expected.
"I just told them I was proud of them, and for us being together such a short amount of time, how they acted and how they came to work every single day," Kelly said. "As a staff, how much we appreciated them, how they made this from a work-environment standpoint a really special feeling every single day when you go into NovaCare Complex, and I just thanked them for that."
The winning field goal was helped by a special teams error. Darren Sproles returned a kickoff 39 yards before Williams dragged him down with a horse-collar tackle at the 37-yard line and was flagged.
Add on another 15 yards, and the Saints had the ball at the Eagles' 48-yard line needing only a field goal to take the lead.
"It was get him down, period," Williams said. "We lost contain on the play, and I'm the safety valve, they got outside, and right then I was trying to get him down. At least I was trying to give my defense the opportunity to get out there and stop them."
The Eagles could not stop the Saints' rushing game on the final drive. The Saints drove the ball 34 yards to the 14-yard line, converting on two third downs along the way. All the Eagles had left was the hope that the field goal attempt would go awry.
The Eagles had taken the lead on the previous possession. After gaining 34 yards on six plays, Nick Foles looked for DeSean Jackson deep down the left sideline. Foles threw the pass short of Jackson, who beat his man downfield but was able to draw a penalty for pass interference. Two plays later, Foles hit Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown. The extra point gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead with just under five minutes remaining.
But they never had the ball again. New Orleans drove for the winning field goal.
"It [stinks], because there was nothing we could do but watch," running back LeSean McCoy said. "They killed us slowly. It was a terrible feeling."
There were so many plays the Eagles will regret this offseason. Foles took a sack that knocked the Eagles out of field goal range in the first half. The long kickoff return and crucial flag put the Saints in favorable position for their final field goal. Jason Avant said keeping the return inside in kickoff coverage is something fundamental that's discussed from the first day.
Foles finished 23 of 33 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy rushed for 77 yards and a score. The defense intercepted Drew Brees twice, although Brees passed for 250 yards. The real bright spot for the Saints offense was the rushing game. Mark Ingram finished with 97 rushing yards. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was surprised by how often the Saints ran.
"We adjusted back and by the fourth quarter, we knew the run game was calling and went back to some of the run calls," Davis said. "The whole thing is about keeping the points down and big plays off of us."
One statistic Kelly watches carefully is response after turnovers. The Eagles had zero points to show after Bradley Fletcher's first-quarter interception, and Foles was at least partially to blame.
After McCoy's 8-yard run on fourth and 1 brought the ball to the Saints' 15-yard line, the Eagles were in comfortable field goal range. A short pass to Brent Celek lost eight yards, and then Foles lost another 11 yards when he took a sack despite nearly seven seconds in the pocket. Alex Henery missed a 48-yard field goal, leaving the game scoreless.
"At the last second when I was thinking of throwing the ball away, the guy grabbed me and spun me," Foles said. "It was a bad decision by me. I definitely could have thrown the ball away in that situation."
The Saints drove 43 yards for a field goal on the ensuing drive, and another three-and-out did not reflect well on the Eagles' lackluster offense. The defense continued to do its part when Ryans intercepted Brees at the Eagles' 33-yard line and returned it 23 yards to the Saints' 44.
This time, the offense responded with points. After a potential touchdown catch went through Ertz's hands, Foles connected with Riley Cooper for a 10-yard score to give the Eagles a 7-3 lead.
The Saints drove downfield for a field goal as the clock expired to enter halftime trailing, 7-6.
The momentum shifted in the third quarter when the Eagles opened with consecutive three-and-outs. The Saints responded to both drives with touchdowns. The first score came on a 24-yard pass to Lance Moore, completing a six-play drive that included four rushes. The Saints rushed on five of eight plays on the next drive, including Ingram's 4-yard score.
"That hurt us the most," offensive tackle Jason Peters said of the Eagles three-and-outs.
Trailing by 13 points, the Eagles needed a big play to get back into the game. They led the NFL with 99 plays of 20-plus yards this season but could not produce many Saturday.
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis injured his head while tackling Jason Avant. Lewis had kept Jackson in check to that point in the game. On the first play after Lewis' injury, Jackson made a 40-yard catch down the right sideline to set up first-and-goal at the Saints' 9-yard line. Four plays later, McCoy rushed for a 1-yard score to cut New Orleans' lead to 20-14.
After the Eagles forced a punt, Jackson returned a punt 29 yards to the Saints' 40-yard line. The Eagles could march only 28 yards before the Saints held them to a fourth down that required a long one yard. Kelly didn't go for this one, instead sending his field goal unit onto the field. Henery's 31-yard kick cut the Saints' lead to 20-17 before New Orleans added a field goal to take a 23-17 lead.
The Eagles scored a touchdown, but they could not finish the game with the ball. However, only 24 points was likely not going to be enough to beat the Saints.
"It was more just a culmination of us not taking care of things offensively," center Jason Kelce said. "The defense put us in a great situation and really knowing…the offense had a lot of opportunities to win this game, and we didn't get it done."
Players in the locker room were convinced that they could have won Saturday's game. They also acknowledged there were too many errors, plays that should have been converted or should not have been allowed. They're the reason the offseason started after Graham's field goal.
"We are all crushed to be eliminated," owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "But I have no doubt that we will be back and that we are more confident than ever, now that we know what we can accomplish."