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Eagles-Saints Playoff Preview: A Cold Reception
The Philadelphia Eagles will be hosting the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round of the playoffs on Saturday night, when the temperatures will be in the teens. The good news for the home team is that Mother Nature just may the best defender the Eagles have against the Saints, who don't play well outside of their climate-controlled dome.
This might be the most significant story-line of the game, since the Saints are 0-5 on the road in the playoffs in franchise history. While I normally don't believe in trends that go back beyond a few years, this one is legitimate since the combination of New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are 0-3 on the road in the playoffs. More importantly, the Saints were 8-0 at home this season, while scoring 34 points per game, but only 3-5, while scoring just 17.8 points per game on the road. That is a significant difference and signifies a legitimate trend.
While I know Mother Nature can't really stop the Saints high-power offense, I was shocked to discover that the Eagles offense was actually better than the Saints offense this season. The Eagles have the 2nd best offense in the NFL (417.2 yards per game), while the Saints have the 4th best (399.4 ypg). And the Eagles have the 4th highest scoring offense at 27.6 points per game, while the Saints come in at No. 10 (25.9 ppg). With that in mind, let's take a look at the matchup.
Eagles Offense Versus Saints Defense
Nick Foles leads the Eagles offense and he led the NFL in Passer Rating at 119.2. Foles only started 10 games, but he threw for 2,891 yards, 27 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. That's the best TD-to-INT ratio in the NFL. The entire Eagles offense has only turned the ball over 19 times all year (4th fewest in the NFL) and 11 of those were by backups. QB Michael Vick turned the ball over 5 times in 5 games. Third-string QB Matt Barkley turned the ball over 5 times in two halves. And benched kick returner, Demaris Johnson fumbled once. That bodes well against a Saints defense whose 12 interceptions rank 24th in the NFL and 19 total takeaways are the 4th fewest in the NFL.
The problem for the Eagles is keeping Foles well protected against the Saints pass rush. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves to blitz and their 49 sacks are the 4th most in the NFL. They are led by DE Cameron Jordon (12.5 sacks) and OLB Junior Gallette (12 sacks). But this being a Rob Ryan defense he moves his pass rushers around, so the entire Eagles offensive line might be dealing with those two from time to time. The Eagles had their struggles protecting Foles last week, in giving up 5 sacks to the Cowboys, but their 37 sacks allowed this season was the 12th lowest total allowed in the NFL. Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and rookie Lane Johnson need to bring their A-game against this defensive front seven.
Assuming Foles gets time to throw the ball, he should be able to find open receivers. The Eagles pass offense is ranked No. 9 (256.9 ypg) and the Saints pass defense is ranked 2nd in the NFL (194.1), but the New Orleans secondary is suddenly limping. CB Jabari Greer was already out with a season-ending injury when safety Kenny Vaccaro suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Panthers in Week 16. That leaves Corey White and Keenan Lewis at CB and Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper at safety. That is not a good defensive secondary, especially with Harper limitations in coverage substituting for Vaccaro. DeSean Jackson (82-1,332-9) and Riley Cooper (47-835-8) should be able to find openings. And I expect to see the Eagles use lots of two tight end sets with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, so they can attempt to keep the Saints in their base defense and exploit mismatches like linebackers trying to cover those TEs. The Eagles' fast-paced, no-huddle offense should put the Saints defense at a disadvantage because Ryan likes to substitute frequently.
Of course, all of that will be set up by the Eagles' No. 1 ranked rushing attack (160.4 ypg) and the NFL's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy. McCoy was so dominant this season that his 1,607 yards rushing were 134 more than New Orleans had as a team. The Saints are a lowly 19th against the run (111.6 ypg), so they are sure to concentrate on stopping McCoy first and foremost, especially in the cold weather conditions. LB Curtis Lofton leads the Saints in tackles and ex-Eagle Broderick Bunkley is the run-stuffing nose tackle. Expect McCoy to play a huge role in the passing game as well, since the Eagles should attempt to exploit the Saints less-than-stellar linebackers with screen passes.
No Home Dome Advantage for Brees This Week
Saints Offense Versus Eagles Defense
Drew Bress will most likely end up in the NFL Hall of Fame, but the reason the Saints are 0-3 in the playoffs with him at quarterback is because he does not play well outside of his home dome. Brees threw for over 4,000 yards for the 8th straight season and threw for over 5,000 yards for the third time, but he was a different player home and away. Bress threw for 5,261 yards, 39 TDs and just 12 INTs, which explains why the Saints had the 2nd best passing offense in the NFL (307.4 ypg). As the chart below clearly states, though, Brees has problems on the road. It also explains why the Saints score 34 points per game at home and only 17.8 on the road. It isn't always the cold weather either, so maybe Brees and the Saints offense also don't operate well with the noise of the opposing crowd. That doesn't bode well for the Saints with the raucous Philly fans who fill Lincoln Financial Field every game.
The only names Philly fans will recognize among the Saints offensive line are guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. While they are short on stars, they have only given up 37 sacks this season, which is the 8th fewest in the NFL. While inconsistent, they should be good enough to protect Brees from the Eagles pass rush that has only produced 37 sacks on the year (20th in NFL). One hope is that OLB Trent Cole can beat LT Terron Armstead, but I'm sure the Saints will give help on Brees' blind-side.
Bree's main weapon in the passing game is tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 86 catches for 1,215 yards and an NFL-leading 16 TD receptions. The problem with defending Graham is not only the fact that he's 6-foot-7, 265 pounds and runs like a wide receiver, but also the fact that he lines up all over the formation. He is a matchup nightmare and I expect the Eagles to double cover him most of the game. Another way to cover him is to assign one of the bigger physical corners, Bradley Fletcher or Cary Williams, to shadow him wherever he goes (and get some safety help). The Patriots did that with CB Aqib Talib and he held Graham without a catch for the only time this season. Or they could use Connor Barwin to bump him at the line all game like he did with Calvin Johnson. Whatever strategy they choose, they need to keep an eye on Graham every snap. The other Saints receivers are good, but not great. Marques Colston had 75 catches for 943 yards and 5 TDs and rookie Kenny Stills had 32 catches for 641 yards and 5 TDs. His 20 yards per reception led the NFL, since he never saw a double team. The other problem with trying to defend the Saints passing game is that their running backs are exceptional receivers. Pierre Thomas has 77 catches for 513 yards and 3 TDs, while Darren Sproles has 71 catches for 604 yards and 2 TDs. Brandon Boykin might spend time chasing the backs out of the backfield since the linebackers aren't fast enough, except for Mychal Kendricks who isn't very good in coverage, and Patrick Chung absolutely stinks. This is not a good matchup for an Eagles defense that was ranked dead last in the NFL against the pass (289.8 ypg).
Luckily for the Eagles, the Saints can't run the football. They are ranked a lowly 25th in rushing ( 92.1 ypg). Thomas leads the team with 549 yards rushing and Mark Ingram leads the backfield with 4.9 yards per carry. The Eagles' 10th ranked run defense shouldn't have any trouble holding this team to minimal yardage on the ground. Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton will need to hold the point of attack so that Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans can clean up. Making the Saints completely one-dimensional will give the Eagles a better chance at getting to Brees with the pass rush.
One last thing to mention is that the Saints prefer long, methodical drives, which explains why they are 2nd in the NFL in time of possession (32:41). That's the exact opposite of the Eagles offense, which ranks last at 26:24. But that also might give the opportunist Eagles bend but don't break defense a chance for more of those timely turnovers they always seem to produce.
Drew Brees Stat Comparison
Points Per Game
Who wins the game?
Both teams have terrible special teams units. Both teams' kickoff return and punt return teams rank near the bottom of the league in spite of names like DeSean Jackson and Darren Sproles as returners. Eagles punter Donnie Jones is a weapon in the battle for field position though. Eagles kicker Alex Henery has been hot lately, but the conditions are going to be brutal for the kickers. The Saints cut regular kicker Garrett Hartley in mid-December and replaced him with Shayne Graham.
Remember the Last Time the Eagles and Saints Met in the Playoffs?
The coaching matchup is intriguing because many people are now comparing Chip Kelly to Sean Payton. It's way too early for that kind of comparison since Payton already won a Super Bowl and Kelly is just an NFL rookie. Plus, Payton proved how valuable his is when he missed last year and the Saints went completely into the tank. It is interesting to note all of the Eagles connections on the Saints staff though, Both Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were on Ray Rhodes' Eagles staff in the late 90s. And of course, Rob Ryan is Buddy Ryan's son.
It's impossible to ignore the stats that prove Drew Brees isn't a great quarterback outside of his dome and the weather is going to be bitterly cold in Philadelphia on Saturday night. There is also the little fact that Eagles fans are a bit rabid and will make hearing audibles difficult for the Saints. No, I haven't forgotten the fact that the Tampa Bay Bucs never won a playoff game before they marched into frigid Philly and beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game a decade ago. But Chip Kelly isn't as stubborn or stupid as Andy Reid. Kelly will run a balanced offense and exploit the weaknesses in the Saints defense, while the Eagles defense will come up with their usual clutch turnovers.
Eagles 34 - Saints 28