Written by: Rusty Miller
Previous Matchup: These two teams’ previous matchup was actually this season in week 11. They played in New Orleans and the Saints drubbed the Eagles 48-7. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for over 350 yards and 4 touchdowns, Mark Ingram ran for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns and Tre’Quan Smith caught 10 passes for over 150 yards and a touchdown. On the other side, Carson Wentz had an awful day, throwing for just over 150 yards and 3 interceptions. He also got sacked 3 times while the Eagles’ defense didn’t take down Brees once. Philadelphia started off slowly in that game with two three-and-outs and an interception and the defense gave up 10 points, all in the first quarter alone. The Eagles will look to have a much better start and game this time around.
Offense: Philadelphia skirted by in the Wild Card round last weekend against the Chicago Bears after a Cody Parkey missed field goal in the waning seconds of the game. Did they get lucky? Possibly, but Nick Foles also played very well against a scary Chicago defense. Throwing for 266 yards and 2 touchdowns, Foles guided the Eagles’ offense to scores on three out of their seven drives. Although he did throw two interceptions, only one was a poor throw while the other was a great play by linebacker Roquan Smith. Philly had no running game last week and will need to improve on their paltry 42 rushing yards in order to have a chance against an improved Saints defense.
Quarterback Drew Brees had an MVP-like regular season, throwing for close to 4,000 yards and a ridiculous touchdown to interception ratio of 32 to 5. He also broke his own completion percentage record of 72% with a 74.4% rate this season. He has been fantastic in the playoffs throughout his career as well, throwing for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns in six of his thirteen career playoff games. Although his statistics have been good, it hasn’t always translated into wins as Brees is just 7-6 in the playoffs with averages of 324 yards, 101.3 rating and a 29 to 9 touchdown to interception ratio. To Brees, this season feels just like the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl run where they had a solid running game and an above average defense. This season, running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram ran for a combined 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns at 4.6 yards per carry. Receiver Michael Thomas is the other key threat, who had over 1,400 yards and 9 touchdowns on 125 receptions. This offense is loaded, hence the explosion they put out on the Eagles during their first matchup this season.
The Philadelphia offense has been very good since Nick Foles took over as the starting quarterback. He is not perfect, however, and has been doing everything essentially by himself as his running game has been nowhere to be found. The “magic” that has surrounded both of Foles’ playoff runs this and last season has fans believing he can do it again and take the Eagles back to the Super Bowl. If he does, it will be because of his quality play and by eliminating the turnovers that he’s had in each game since he’s stepped back into the fold. And that is a big if. Drew Brees, however, has been better for longer and actually has a running game to support him, so he doesn’t have to throw the ball more than 30 times each game like Foles does. That running game is exactly why the Saints have the better offense. Plus, Michael Thomas is better than most of the Eagles receivers combined.
Defense: The Philadelphia defense has stepped up considerably during the latter part of the season, including in last week’s playoff win. With wins in 6 of the last 7 (starting with the week after they played the Saints), the Eagles have allowed 283 passing yards, 87.4 rushing yards, and 18.9 points per game during this late-season stretch. Their secondary is vulnerable, giving up over 300 yards passing in four of the last five games including 455 to Dak Prescott in their last loss, week 14. They need to have better hands against New Orleans, however, after dropping two potential interceptions against Chicago last week. During this seven game stretch the defensive line has come alive, putting up 20 sacks, an average of almost 3 per game. In order to win, the defensive line will again need to help the secondary create potential turnovers and get Brees off kilter.
Like the Eagles, the Saints defense has improved as of late. Disregarding Week 17 (a meaningless blowout loss to the Panthers), the Saints had won four out of their last five games since blowing out the Eagles in Week 11. During that span, the defense gave up only 16.2 points, 280 passing yards, and 79.2 rushing yards per game. Just like the Eagles, the Saints’ secondary is vulnerable, allowing 377 yards to Matt Ryan and 380 yards to Ben Roethlisberger respectively. The key to their defensive resurgence has been their turnover production. From weeks 12 through 16, New Orleans has forced 12 fumbles (8 recoveries) and 3 interceptions. That’s an average of two turnovers per game, and when Drew Brees doesn’t throw interceptions often, the turnover margin usually becomes the crucial factor in winning games.
These two teams are pretty even defensively. Running the ball, which is already difficult for the Eagles, will be tough for both offenses in this game. The Saints have five offensive lineman on the injury report with limited participation statuses as of Wednesday, which bodes well for the Philadelphia defensive line. Both defenses will give up passing yards but I think it will come down to who can pressure the quarterback more. Given the depth of Philadelphia behind Cameron Jordan and the linemen behind Sheldon Rankins for the Saints, I believe this defensive matchup is a push.
Special Teams: The Eagles special teams came up in a huge spot last week by deflecting the potential game-winning field goal into the upright and then the crossbar to win the game. This, combined with Jake Elliott’s lone field goal, helped to outlast the Bears at the buzzer. The Saints have an excellent kicker of their own in Will Lutz. His 93% field goal percentage was 6th in the regular season among kickers with at least 15 attempts and he has missed less than half the amount of kicks that Elliott has (though three of Elliott’s five missed field goal attempts have come from beyond 50 yards, which is not automatic). Despite the stats, I believe the Eagles’ overall special teams play of late gives them the advantage over the Saints.
Coaching: Eagles coach Doug Pederson won his fourth playoff game last weekend in Chicago and stayed undefeated in the playoffs. He has worked magic with Nick Foles and his defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz has done a fine job of handling the many nagging injuries to his secondary to keep games close as of late and a change at offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach have not deterred the Super Bowl champs yet this season. On the other side, Sean Payton has his team back in the playoffs for the second consecutive year after gaining the number one seed at 13-3. The Saints look to bounce back after their hearts broke during the Minneapolis Miracle last season. Payton is 7-5 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season. The Saints are also 5-0 under Payton at home in the playoffs. With two Super Bowl champions across from each other, I don’t see any advantage for either side when it comes to coaching.
Prediction: These two teams are vastly different from when they first played each other this season. The Eagles have ramped up their defensive efforts and brought the Nick Foles magic back to fruition for another playoff run. The Saints have not been the high-scoring bunch they were in the first 11 games of the season and they too have changed on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles will sack Drew Brees two times, but he will damage their secondary enough to get the win. I do believe in Nick Foles, but I believe in the Saints’ overall team and future Hall of Famer Brees more. This one will be close, unlike their first meeting, but I think the Saints prevail by 3.
Saints 30, Eagles 27