It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

NEW ORLEANS — Maybe it’s nice for the Saints to have it a reference point.

You never know when it might come in handy again.

Who knows? Perhaps as soon as next week — that would be the NFC championship game against the Rams right here in the Superdome — they might have to wake up a quarter or so late and start digging themselves out a of a hole that, in truth, on this Sunday looked deeper than the 14-0 deficit to the Eagles that the scoreboard was reporting.

Nobody ever said the NFL playoffs are supposed to be easy.

But the Saints’ 20-14 divisional victory over the Eagles was a struggle even when it was going their way.

The Saints totally controlled the final three quarters — which is surely not to say it ever came easy.

But that’s OK. You don’t dicker with aesthetics in the playoffs. Just advance.

Good comeback. Gutsy. A lot of poise on display. A whole lot Latmore persistence.

But the Saints also have another reference point — that middle third of the season when it all came so easy, when they seemed to get all the breaks, even most of the calls in a flag-happy league, when they were putting up moon shot numbers that threatened to blow a hole in the dome.

For a random example, there was that 48-7 whipping of the Eagles in Week 11.

Same Superdome. Same opponent. Different stakes. Way different game.

The Superdome did its part, topping out that loud-a-meter at 128 decibles at one point, which supposedly will put a rock concert to shame.

The Saints needed it.

They needed all the help they could get after another slow start.

The Eagles this time scored more points than they did in the first meeting — 14 — before the Saints had a play that gained yardage. Any yardage.

There’s your 14-0 hole right there.

If there’s a difference in the Big Easy Saints of six weeks ago and the Big Find a Way Saints of today, that’s it.

Those Saints were scoring before the National Anthem was done and seemingly never looking back. Didn’t know the meaning of adversity.

Of late, they’ve had to be more creative.

It all worked out.

Whatever works.

“They came out swinging,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We knew it was going to be a fight. We knew we’d have to take their best punch.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you (finish). A the end of the day, I loved the way our defense played. I didn’t love us at first.”

There wasn’t much to even like as a friend.

And that was the good unit, if there was one, given what the Saints offense was in setting the tone when Drew Brees himself was intercepted on the game’s first play.

He would settle down. Of course he was. He’s Drew Brees.

But even he couldn’t make it look easy this time out.

Still, give the Saints extra points for degree of difficulty.

Just consider the Saints’ two touchdown drives.

They’d done nothing until Marcus Lattimore’s late first-quarter interception kept the hole from getting deeper yet.

“Yeah, it kind of changed after that,” Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson said. “Credit the Saints.”

And it wasn’t like the Saints offense took the turnover, flipped a switch, and lived happily ever after.

Head coach Sean Payton was all but forced into a fake punt — from his own 30-yard line. It could have sealed the game in Eagle green eight there, but you don’t even have to ask that, yes, it was sneaky play-maker Taysom Hill who picked it up as the Dome decible-meter maxed out on a sigh of relief.

But it took yet another fourth-down gamble at the goal line for the touchdown that got the Saints back in it, 14-7.

OK, the Saints had the offense rolling.

Well, sort of.

The Eagles had no business prancing around like they had in their first two drives, and the Saints defense pretty well put the squeeze on them for the duration.

But nothing was going to come easy.

The Saints’ go-ahead drive was … well, it was another nice reference point to have.

Who knows when you might someday have to dial up an 18-play drive that used up 11:29 and, in actual total stop-and-start yards covered, might have stretched from the Superdome to the Gulf of Mexico.

It likely would have been far easier if not the three holding penalties and a false start that it had to overcome along the way.

But they kept doggedly reloading until the drive finally hit the end zone after about a month of teasing.

Now it’s on to the NFL championship game against the Rams.

It probably won’t come easy either.

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