At the start of the season, few would have expected Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles to feature Taysom Hill or Jalen Hurts starting — let alone both — but it will make for one of the more intriguing matchups of the NFL's Week 14 slate.
The Saints' experiment with Hill is nearing its end as Drew Brees is expected to return next week, and the results have been mixed. There's been plenty of good (three wins, four rushing TDs), bad (only two total passing TDs and 181.0 passing yards per game), and ugly (eight sacks, five fumbles).
But since this is only a temporary solution at quarterback — at least until the offseason — the most important thing has been the wins. In Atlanta, the Saints extended their winning streak to nine games. The latest victory secured a playoff berth for them, the first team in the NFL to do so this season.
The Eagles, meanwhile, lost at Green Bay on Sunday for their fourth consecutive defeat. In doing so, Philadelphia has guaranteed itself a losing record at the end of the regular season. The Eagles led the NFC East as recently as two weeks ago but fell to 1.5 games behind New York and Washington.
That recent fall caused them to bench Carson Wentz in the second half for Jalen Hurts, who had appeared in all but one game but saw his first extended action. The rookie second-rounder was 5-for-12 for 109 yards with a touchdown and interception and added 29 rushing yards on five attempts.
The Eagles hold a slim 17-15 advantage in this series, and the Eagles lead 9-4 in Philadelphia. The Saints have won five of the six most recent meetings, although all of those included Brees.
New Orleans vs. Philadelphia
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Eagles reach the end zone more than once?
New Orleans' defense has steadily improved over the course of the season. The Saints allowed more than 20 points in each of their first seven games. When they permitted more than 30 points, they lost both times.
However, New Orleans' defense has stifled opponents in the last five games. Opposing offenses have scored an average of only 8.8 points during those recent matches. The Saints defense has permitted just two touchdowns in that span. No team has compiled more than 16 points in any of those five contests.
In contrast, Philadelphia's offense has struggled to score in the past five games. The Eagles have averaged 15.2 points from their offense per contest. In none of those did they exceed 17 points. Philly will need a much bigger spark out of Hurts than they got last week, when he scored on one of four drives.
2. Will Taysom Hill protect the ball and improve his pocket awareness?
One major cause of concern for Sean Payton regarding his decision to start Hill is his frequency of turnovers. He has fumbled the ball nine times, which is two less than the league-high despite him only starting three games. Fortunately for the Saints, only four of those were recovered by the opposing defenses. He has only had one interception out of his 81 passing attempts. However, defenders have dropped several of his errant passes that should have resulted in interceptions.
Hill has shown a determination to prove himself as a true quarterback, not just a versatile player who takes some snaps from center. Unfortunately, his efforts have caused him to hold the ball for too long at times while in the pocket. He has already been sacked nine times resulting in a loss of 58 yards.
Despite Hill's desire to show that he can serve as a dependable starting quarterback, sometimes he should take off with the ball. During his three starts as quarterback, he has rushed at least ten times per game. He has compiled more than 40 rushing yards in each of those games along with trips to the endzone twice in two of those.
3. Who should start as quarterback for Philadelphia?
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has decided to give Hurts his first professional start against the Saints. In the process, he is sending Wentz, whose four-year, $128 million extension has yet to kick in, to the bench. Is Pederson making the correct decision at the time when his team can still qualify for the playoffs?
Wentz has started every game up to this point for Philadelphia, and it's been by far his worst season yet. Among 33 qualified passers, his 57.4 percent completion rate ranks 32nd. His 6.0 yards per attempt rank 31st, and his 3.5 percent touchdown rate ranks 25th.
More concerning are his difficulty in protecting the ball and himself. He had two passes picked off in four of the Eagles' five initial contests this season. Philadelphia had a record of 0-3-1 in those. He leads the league in interceptions thrown (15) and sacks taken (50). His 49.2 QBR is seventh lowest among qualified passers.
Hurts has great potential after finishing second in the Heisman voting last season, but he has hardly compiled any pro statistics. Before his 5-of-12 performance last week, he had completed all three of his passes for 33 yards and carried the ball 12 times for 56 yards. The Eagles should find out quickly if Hurts is up for the challenge, but a shakeup on this stale offense was sorely needed.
This game appears as the last one which Drew Brees must miss due to his injury. The Saints' defense needs to continue its stinginess to squelch the struggling Eagles' offense. If Taysom Hill can avoid turning over the ball, the Saints should be able to sustain multiple scoring drives.
The Eagles are barely clinging to any hope of reaching the playoffs. Doug Pederson's decision to start a rookie quarterback looks like a desperate gamble. The coach hopes that his young quarterback can spark a four-game winning streak to grab the NFC East title and the ticket to the playoffs accompanying it.
Prediction: Saints 27, Eagles 6
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.
(Jalen Hurts photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles, courtesy of philadelphiaeagles.com)