NEW ORLEANS -- Michael Thomas sat in a back corner of the New Orleans Saints' locker room early Sunday evening and rubbed lotion over his massive hands. He had just put in a full day's work, catching 12 passes for 171 yards (a franchise playoff record) and the go-ahead touchdown in a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and now he wanted to be as kind to his hands as they had been to him and his teammates, helping to reel in a playoff game that appeared to be getting away from them early.
"I want that ball when it's in the air," he would say later. "Since I was a baby, I've been playing football and catching passes, all that type of stuff. Now in the playoffs, in this position that I'm in, I want it. When I look at people, when I stare them down, when I flex and stuff, it's to prove a point. This is what I came to do, this is what I want to do, so I'm going to do it."
There was no better time than Sunday. The Saints were playing the final game of the Divisional Round, and their early 14-0 deficit fell in line with the three games that had preceded it, each of which was over soon after it began. The Chiefs jumped to a 24-7 first-half lead in their rout of the Colts; the Rams got up 23-7 on the Cowboys; and the Patriots dominated the Chargers en route to a 35-7 halftime advantage.
Now here were the Saints, surrendering touchdowns on their first two defensive series and being outgained 151 to minus-1 yards in total offense with a minute to go in the first quarter. You couldn't help but wonder if it was going to be that type of game, that type of weekend. But things turned when a Marshon Lattimore interception was followed by a successful fake punt from New Orleans' own 30-yard line, setting the Saints en route to their first score.
But it would not be until the third quarter that they finally got ahead on the scoreboard, and it was largely due to Thomas, who would not be denied. He had a reception for 11 yards on second-and-9, a 20-yard reception on second-and-20, another 20-yard catch on third-and-16, then a 2-yard scoring snag on first-and-goal. Seemingly every time the Saints needed a big catch on the 18-play, 92-yard drive, Thomas delivered.
"He has real strong hands in traffic," coach Sean Payton said. "He's tough and competitive. He's one of those players that believes he can make those types of plays. Drew [Brees] did a great job of finding him. Those were significant plays that really changed the direction of the game."
Thomas is a melding of humility and hubris. He will tell you that he is blessed to have this opportunity and to have a coach who believes in him and a quarterback who trusts him. Then he will acknowledge his belief that he cannot be stopped.
Interestingly, Thomas was anxious during the week. He prides himself on knowing his assignments and knowing what to expect, but, in this instance, he was unsure how the Eagles would defend him. In a 41-point rout of the Eagles eight weeks earlier, he had 92 yards and a touchdown, but was held to a season-low four targets. Part of that stemmed from Philadelphia consistently using two defenders on him in coverage.
"I was antsy because I didn't know what they would do this time," he said. "You could turn on the film and see that they doubled me most of that game, so I was like, What will they do this time? They can't triple me, so will they keep doubling? Will they trust that their guys will be better and play me straight up?"
Whatever they did, it didn't matter. Which is why Brees kept going back to him.
"I've been very fortunate to play with some great [receivers]," Brees said. "You spend a lot of time together to develop that trust, that confidence, that chemistry. We've had a couple of great ones here in New Orleans, but obviously, the last few years with Mike, I've just got so much trust and confidence in him. What you see on game day is what I see during practice every day. It's not like the guy just turns it on for game day. He practices that way -- the same intensity, attention to detail, and that fire, passion and competitive drive. He's a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make plays when you need it most, and he did that today."
Next for the Saints is a rematch against the Rams, whom they beat 45-35 on Nov. 4. In that game, Thomas had the back-breaking score, a 72-yard catch-and-run on third-and-7. After it he pulled a cell phone from behind the padding on the goal post and faked making a call. The purpose, he later admitted, was to help draw attention to himself, aware that the stage for the game would be significant.
Suffice to say, Thomas no longer needs props. His play is doing his talking -- and on Sunday, it spoke volumes.