Eagles-Saints Preview: It Will Take a Miracle
According to the national media and the odds-makers, the Philadelphia Eagles have already lost their playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints because they lost to them during the regular season. Yes, it was the worst loss ever by a defending Super Bowl Champion, but this is a completely different Eagles team that will be traveling to The Big Easy.
That Eagles team was using third-string defensive backs due to three injuries to starters during the game. The offensive line was banged-up and missing starters. Simply put, the Saints just got on a roll. Of course, the Saints continued that roll and ran up the score on the Eagles. Don't think they have forgotten that. I'm sure Malcolm Jenkins remembers his one-finger salute to Saints head coach Sean Payton near the end of that game.
The Saints are the far superior offensive team (8th in yards, 3rd in scoring), but the Eagles offense is just hitting their stride. Plus, neither team played very good defense during the regular season, but the Eagles got better and better as the season went on. The Eagles were the best red zone defense in the NFL and the last time I checked, all that really matters is who has more points when the game ends. With all that in mind, let's take a look at the matchup.
Eagles Offense Versus Saints Defense
Carson Wentz had one of the worst starts of his career against the Saints, but it now Nick Foles times for the Eagles and, as we all know from that shiny Lombardi trophy the team paraded down Broad Street, Foles has a certain magic when it comes to the playoffs. As a matter of fact, Foles has the highest playoff passer rating in the history of the NFL at 105.2. That should come in handy against the Saints 29th ranked pass defense (269 yards per game). I think everyone can agree that this game is going to be a shoot-out and everyone should also remember that Foles out-dueled some man named Brady in the Super Bowl.
Foles has plenty of weapons at his disposal, especially WR Alshon Jeffrey and TE Zach Ertz, who set the NFL record for receptions in a season by a TE with 116. The Saints don't have any shutdown CBs or safeties to blanket either receiver. Eli Apple? Please. Foles also does a good job of spreading the ball around to all of his receivers.
Speaking of spreading the ball around, another player who didn't play in the first game is RB Darren Sproles. Yes, the Saints were No. 2 against the run during the regular season, but that has more to do with teams always playing from behind against the Saints than any great players up front on the New Orleans defense. Sproles, Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood aren't going to gash the Saints run defense, but they will keep the defense honest. And when Sproles gets out into a pass pattern, he is a matchup nightmare for any team.
Another huge difference for the Eagles is that this is the healthiest their offensive line has been all season. In recent weeks the Eagles have shut down pass rushers like Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Ryan Kerrigan and Khalil Mack. Now the Saints best pass rusher, Cameron Jordan, is going to be matched up against RT Lane Johnson, who has been playing so well that the Bears moved Mack over to the other side last week and he was shut down by future Hall of Fame LT Jason Peters. Throw in All Pro center Jason Kelce and RG Brandon Brooks and it's easy to see why Nick Foles has time in the pocket.
Saints Offense Versus Eagles Defense
Saints QB Drew Brees is an all-time great and a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has the record for most passing yards in NFL history. And if you think that's just because he has also thrown the most passes, then you may have missed the fact that he is also the most accurate passer in history. If that's not enough, Brees has also thrown the second most TD passes in history. As if that's not impressive enough, this might be his best season ever, with 32 TD passes and only 5 INTs, for a league-leading 115.7 passer rating. In short, he's incredible and a first look at the Eagles defensive backs would make anyone who has not been paying close attention to the Eagles think he will shred them again. He just might, but it won't be as bad as the first matchup.
I already mentioned how the Eagles were playing that previous game with third-string CBs like De'Vante Bausby and Chandon Sullivan, who have since been cut. Now CB Rasul Douglas is playing the best football of his short career and rookie CB Avonte Maddox has been an absolute revelation. They will have their hands full with WR Michael Thomas, who led the NFL with 125 receptions for 1,405 yards. Of course, when the Eagles double covered him in the first matchup, No. 2 WR Tre'Quan Smith had 10 catches for 157 yards. But Smith has only six catches in the last five games. What the Eagles are going to have the most trouble with is covering RB Alvin Kamara out of the backfield. Expect the Eagles to spend most of the game in their "dime" defense (6 DBs) and cover Kamara with either a CB or safety Malcolm Jenkins. (Note: That one-finger salute Jenkins gave Payton was because the Saints threw a long TD pass to Kamara while Jenkins tried to cover him, when they were already crushing the Eagles by 30+ points.)
Kamara is also a gifted runner and the Saints team him with Mark Ingram in their backfield. That helps explain why New Orleans was No. 6 in rushing during the regular season. The Eagles gave up 173 yards rushing on 37 carries in the blowout loss, but again, this is a different Eagles team. MLB Jordan Hicks is back, along with DT Tim Jernigan. Those two will make a difference against the run. The Eagles are only giving up 3.0 yards per carry in their last three games and have held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing in the last four games.
The Saints offensive line gave up the second fewest sacks in the NFL, so even though Brees has a quick release, they certainly must be doing something right. Center Max Unger is a Pro Bowler, but he is going to have his hands full with DT Fletcher Cox, who has just been a wrecking ball all season. LT Terron Armstead is another Pro Bowler, but he has had injury problems this season. Armstead came back from a torn pectoral muscle in Week 16, only to leave the game in the second quarter after he re-injured the pec. He'll be facing DE Michael Bennett, who has been the Eagles best DE this season.
Who Wins the Eagles-Saints Playoff Game?
The Eagles special teams haven't been so special this season, but they are still playing thanks in large part to the finger of Treyvon Hester, who blocked Bears kicker Cody Parkey's last second FG attempt last week. The Eagles also played without Sproles as their punt returner most of the season and Sproles is a threat to take one to the house on every return. Eagles kicker Jake Elliot is having a fine year making 26 of 31 FGs and he has shown that he has a big leg to make the long kicks. The Saints have an equally dangerous punt returner in Kamara and their kicker is even better. Wil Lutz is 28-for-30 on FGs and 52-53 on extra points. The strange thing is, all three of those misses were in their dome. Double Doink Part Deux, anyone?
Cody Parkey Memes
The coaching matchup is pretty even, since both Payton and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson have won Super Bowls. The difference is that Pederson won his last season. There is no way to say either team has an advantage here. But I will note that Payton spent his youth in the Philly area as a Philly sports fan and got his first NFL coaching job as Ray Rhodes' QB coach for the Eagles in 1997. Small world, huh?
Some Foles Magic Against the Bears
The first game between these two teams this season means less than most people think. The Saints are no longer considered an unstoppable juggernaut and the Eagles are playing their best football of the season, having won 5 or their last 6 games to make the playoffs, then going into Chicago and upsetting a Bears team with the No. 1 scoring defense in the league. And there is simply no denying the Nick Foles Magic at this point.
Both teams have plenty of players and coaches with playoff experience. The Saints are 5-0 in the playoffs with Payton and Brees, which is mighty impressive, but did I mention Big Game Nick Foles?
The Saints are heavy favorites at home and they earned that right as the best team in the NFC this season. I just can't ignore the fact that the Eagles, with Nick Foles leading the team, just seem to do the impossible and win the biggest games when nobody gives them a chance. Kamara said last year that they would have beaten the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game if they hadn't lost on the Minnesota Miracle. I doubt it. I mean, New Orleans might have the Saints, but the Eagles have Saint Nick.
Eagles 34 - Saints 30