Two teams on the bubble of the NFL playoff picture are set to meet Sunday when the Philadelphia Eagles host the New Orleans Saints.
Just two weeks ago, the Saints were 5-2 and cruising, but they've since dropped two straight. Starting a third-string quarterback and a running back who returned to the team after an absence of more than two years against the Titans last week, they found a different way to lose a game. The kicker missed two extra points. Those failures necessitated a two-point conversion attempt in the closing minutes that failed after tight end Adam Trautman committed a false start before the play.
While the Saints never led in Tennessee, the Eagles quickly built a 10-0 lead after the first quarter in Denver. Although the Broncos tied the score early in the second, Philadelphia extended its advantage back to double-digits in the waning minutes of the first half and never relinquished it. This was the Eagles' fourth win of the season, all of which have come on the road.
The Eagles own the lead in this series, 18-15, which includes a 10-4 advantage in Philadelphia. However, since 2009, the Saints have won five of the seven most recent meetings, including two in the playoffs.
New Orleans (5-4) vs. Philadelphia (4-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Saints' placekicking woes force a risky offensive strategy?
Any play involving placekicking has involved much more drama than it should for a professional football team. The Saints have already used three kickers in trying to replace Wil Lutz, who is out for the rest of the season. Aldrick Rosas is 1-for-4 on field goals, while Brian Johnson and Cody Parkey have made just eight of 13 extra points. At this point, Sean Payton needs to re-evaluate his in-game strategy.
Should the Saints forego attempts at kicking extra points and try two-point conversions instead? They have failed on both two-point attempts this season. Last season, they did not convert the one attempt that they made. They missed all three tries at two-pointers in 2019. Their last successful two-point conversion occurred in the second week of the 2018 season.
The difficulty with two-point conversions seems incomprehensible considering the presence of the Saints' short-yardage specialist, Taysom Hill. He has rushed the ball 20 times with 11 of those resulting in a first down and three ending in a touchdown. He has accumulated 104 yards on the ground, 55 of which were after making contact with a defender. Payton might have invested a considerable amount of time working on short-yardage plays for Hill if not for a foot injury that has limited his practice time during this week.
2. Can Jalen Hurts repeat last season's performance against the Saints?
Hurts started his first NFL regular-season game against New Orleans in Week 14 of last season. His rookie status did not show as he turned in a phenomenal performance. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown without any interceptions or sacks. He also rushed the ball 18 times for 106 yards.
Fortunately for Hurts, he does not have to provide a great passing effort to win this year, just avoid making mistakes. He can rely on a strong rushing attack, which ranks third in yards per game (144.5) and fourth in averaging exactly five yards per rushing attempt. When he has been sacked two or more times in a contest, the Eagles are 2-5. He has turned over the ball in only fives games, but Philadelphia has lost three of those.
The Saints have had a solid if unspectacular pass defense this season. Although they’ve given up the seventh-most yards this season (264.9 mpg), they rank eighth in passer rating allowed (86.5) thanks to 11 interceptions (T-5th) and 20 sacks (T-17th).
3. Can Mark Ingram II continue to carry the offense?
Ingram's return to New Orleans has boosted the Saints' offense in the absence of Michael Thomas and given Alvin Kamara's recent knee injury. In Ingram's first game back, he ran the ball six times for 27 yards and caught two passes for 25 yards. In his first start in the next game, he carried the ball nine times for 43 yards plus caught it five times for 21 yards.
Last Sunday, Ingram showed his importance when Kamara missed the game at Tennessee. Ingram had 14 carries, twice the number of the rest of the team combined. His 47 rushing yards were also more than double anyone else's. Additionally, in Nashville, he finished second among the Saints in receptions (four) and receiving yards (61). Kamara was ruled out once again this week, along with offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.
Philadelphia should prove to be an easier team to run on than what Ingram has faced lately. The Bucs and Titans each ranked in the top seven in rush defense, while Philadelphia has given up 117.3 yards per game, albeit on 4.0 yards per carry. The Eagles have also given up the fifth-most catches and 10th-most receiving yards to running backs this season.
Last season, the Saints traveled to Philadelphia without their starting quarterback and lost 24-21. However, this situation does not resemble the one in 2020. The Saints entered that contest on a nine-game winning streak. They knew that their starting quarterback would return from his injury before the end of the regular season. In contrast, the Saints have lost two consecutive games for the first time this season and are alternating their reserve quarterbacks.
This game matters a great deal to both teams' post-season hopes. Entering Sunday's game, the Saints currently possess the second wild card. They also trail Tampa Bay by one game in the NFC South. But the Eagles' situation is more precarious. They trail Carolina by one game for the final wild-card spot. The Cowboys are 3.5 games ahead of Philadelphia in the NFC East.
Prediction: Saints 22, Eagles 20
— 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.