"I thought after we scored, if we could pin them down deep and then get a stop, I thought we had a shot at it," coach Chip Kelly said.
But that worst-case scenario was realized. The Saints' final, time consuming series left the Eagles with a bitter taste in the minutes after the game.
"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."
The problems started with the kickoff, which went 2 yards deep into the left side of the end zone. That meant it was a returnable kick for Darren Sproles. On four previous kickoffs, kicker Alex Henery had one touchback, and on the others, the Saints did not start past their 27-yard line.
"It's science - the ball is not going to travel as far when it's cold," Henery said. "We were trying to be more directional with the ball and get them outside the numbers. . . . The last kickoff, I was happy with where it went. It was 2 yards deep, into the wind."
But the coverage unit simply could not stop the 5-foot-6 Sproles. He bounced to his right and outran the Eagles' coverage to the corner. Special-teams ace Colt Anderson said he took responsibility because he was too aggressive and ran too deep on the play.
"The whole game they kept hitting us in the middle, hitting us in the middle, and they got us," Anderson said. "Got to give credit to them. Sproles is a good returner. At the end of the day, I didn't do the job. It's all on me."
Sproles turned the corner on a 39-yard return and was crossing the 30-yard line when Cary Williams reached for him and dragged him down by the back collar of his shoulder pads at the 37-yard line. Williams did not want to dive to attempt to tackle Sproles because if he missed, he thought Sproles might run to the end zone. The horse-collar tackle drew a flag and gave the Saints an additional 15 yards, allowing them to start at the Eagles' 48-yard line.
"We lost [containment] on the play, and I'm the safety valve, and they got outside, and I was trying to make a play, trying to get him down," Williams said. "At the least I was trying to give my defense an opportunity to hopefully stop him."
The defense had little room for error. Anything more than 20 yards would give Saints kicker Shayne Graham a routine field goal.
The Eagles curiously did not have Trent Cole on the field to defend the last drive. After Mark Ingram was stopped for a 1-yard loss, rookie Khiry Robinson rushed for a 13-yard gain to the Eagles' 36-yard line.
"The game came down to us as a defense making a stop, and we knew it was going to come down to that," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Whoever is on the field last has to stand up and make a play."
At that point, the best the Eagles could do was force a longer field goal. After two plays yielded 9 yards, the Eagles needed to stop the Saints on third and 1 from the 27-yard line to limit New Orleans to a 44-yard attempt.
Quarterback Drew Brees kept the ball and, with the help of fullback Jed Collins pushing from behind, barreled through the Eagles' defensive line for 3 yards. The Saints wound up gaining 10 more yards, but the damage was done. They were already within safe range for Graham.
Graham, who has played in parts of 13 NFL seasons, signed with the Saints before Week 16. He said Saturday's 32-yard field goal was "probably one of the most comfortable feelings" of his career, and that he did not feel "one ounce of hesitation, fear, or anxiety."
Kelly watched the kick go through the uprights. He licked his lips and walked to shake Saints coach Sean Payton's hand. His offense had scored only 24 points. His special teams allowed too long of a return. And his defense could not stop the Saints' rushing game in the final five minutes.
"That was the story of the game," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "This was the wrong game to give up a good [rushing game]. It was way too much, and it showed on that last drive."