NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As Drew Brees sermonized his teammates in a pregame huddle, Michael Thomas hung on every word from his quarterback.
Thomas seemed mesmerized as Brees pumped up the Saints, never taking his eyes off the Saints star.
Then, Thomas ripped apart Philadelphia's defense with 12 receptions for a team playoff record of 171 yards and the winning touchdown as New Orleans beat the defending champion Eagles 20-14 Sunday to advance to the NFC championship game.
Brees targeted Thomas a whopping 16 times, and on most of those passes Thomas was wide open. Philly's defense, particularly its secondary, has been ravaged by injuries, so trying to slow down an All-Pro receiver who led the NFL with 125 catches this season was far too great a task.
"We just keep going," Thomas said. "When we come out there, we feel like no one can stop us. I just feel like we keep building every week. We have a thing, and it's hard for the other team to stop."
Six times in the regular season, Thomas caught at least 11 passes in a game, including the first three. He had 16 in the season opener, and he made 12 catches for 211 yards in the 45-35 shootout victory against the Rams in November. Los Angeles (13-4) visits New Orleans (14-3) next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Good luck, Rams cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.
"When you get your two guys out there on the edges, I think that will enable us to do some different things coverage-wise," Rams coach Sean McVay said after the Saints advanced. "Be a little bit more flexible. ... What a great job Michael Thomas did affecting that game just now, and he's going to be a big focal point for us to be aware of where he's at. But, he's got a lot of ways that they can beat you, which is what makes them such a great offense."
A 2016 second-round draft pick out of Ohio State, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas has been a stud in all three pro seasons. He made 92 catches as a rookie for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2017, he upped it to 104 receptions for 1,245 yards, but only five TDs. He had nine touchdowns during this regular season.
Not only does Thomas have size and reach, he also runs smooth routes and has deep speed. While Brees stops short of saying Thomas is the best target he's had, it's clear that the soon-to-be 40-year-old QB relishes working with Thomas.
"Over the last few years with Mike, I've just got so much trust and confidence in him," Brees said. "He's a big-time player who wants to be the guy to make the plays when you need it most."
The Saints needed it most against the Eagles. Thomas came through.
"It's win or go home," he said. "I do whatever it takes. If you are double- or triple-teamed, it doesn't matter. You just need to concentrate on what you are doing and things will open up."
Did they ever Sunday.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed.