The Philadelphia Eagles' quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions brings them to New Orleans for a second time as the top-seeded Saints await in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. The Eagles are coming off of a hard-fought, 16-15 win in Chicago while the Saints had the benefit of getting a week off.
Philadelphia needed a three-game winning streak and, ironically, some help from Chicago in Week 17 to surpass Minnesota for the final wild-card berth in the NFC. The Eagles then promptly thanked the Bears by beating the on their turf in gut-wrenching fashion no less.
New Orleans rested most of its starters in an ugly Week 17 home loss to Carolina, but that's because this team has a much bigger prize in its sights. The last and only time the Saints were the top seed in the playoffs was in 2009. That also was the season they went on to win the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia leads the all-time series between the two teams, with New Orleans holding a 10-8 advantage at home. This is the fourth postseason matchup with the Saints under Sean Payton winning each of the last two (2006, '13 seasons). Both of those games were at home, which was the site of the teams' most recent encounter.
In Week 11, the Saints blasted the Eagles 48-7 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. At the time, the loss dropped Philadelphia to 4-6 and seemingly out of the postseason conversation, but a 5-1 finish followed by a gritty win during Wild Card Weekend has the defending Super Bowl champions still fighting. But will anything be different this time around against a New Orleans team that utterly dominated the Eagles in Round 1?
NFC Divisional Playoff: Philadelphia at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -8
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Nick Foles make enough of a difference?
Carson Wentz started the Week 11 meeting back on Nov. 18. It didn't go well for him, completing 19 of 33 passes for 156 yards and three interceptions. He also was sacked three times as Philadelphia was outgained 546 to 196 that afternoon.
With Wentz sidelined due to a back injury, Foles is back at the helm and trying to replicate his late-season heroics once again. He's 5-1 as the starter, including improving his playoff record to 4-1. He's completing 71 percent of his passes for an average of 280 yards per game with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He has been sacked 10 times, but the Bears' vaunted defense got him down just once last week.
New Orleans' defense has been susceptible through the air. The Saints enter this game having allowed 269 passing yards per game, which is the fourth most in the league. They also have yielded 30 touchdown passes and have recorded 12 interceptions. The pass rush (49 sacks, tied for fifth) has helped out what has been at times a vulnerable secondary.
New Orleans made Wentz feel very unwelcome in the Superdome. Will it be any different with Foles under center? He has shown himself to be capable of making things happen from the pocket, but his offensive line will have to give him enough time to do so or we could see a repeat of Wentz' numbers.
2. Will the Saints’ rushing defense return to dominating form?
Entering Week 17, New Orleans was ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense at 78.1 yards per game allowed. Then Carolina put up 111, which is just one yard shy of the Saints' season high, and they had to settle for finishing a close second (80.2 ypg vs. 80.0 for Chicago) in that category.
Conversely, Philadelphia had minimal success running the ball against New Orleans in the first meeting. The Eagles finished with 58 rushing yards on 12 carries with their lone touchdown coming on the ground as well. Falling behind 17-0 did impact the game plan for Philadelphia but that wasn't the only factor behind the output either.
So the question becomes which run defense will we see from the Saints on Sunday? The one that struggled against the Panthers or the one that really clamped down on opponents throughout the regular season? New Orleans has only given up 100 or more rushing yards in a game four times this season. It lost two of those, although to be fair, many starters didn't play in the regular-season finale against Carolina.
It also should be pointed out that while the Eagles did pile up the rushing yards, their yards per carry average of 4.8 is very respectable. Most of that came from Josh Adams' 28-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Take out that play and that average is cut nearly in half (2.7).
Either way, a one-dimensional offense that relies on Foles to throw the ball all over the field to pull off the upset in one of the toughest home environments in the league will play right into the Saints' hands. Philadelphia has to find a way to get something out of its ground game or it will be another rough outing in the Superdome.
3. Can the Eagles’ defensive backs avoid being torched again?
Philadelphia focused on shutting down All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas in the first meeting. In response, Drew Brees spread the wealth around, completing passes to seven different players. Rookie Tre’Quan Smith put up his biggest numbers of the season — 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown with Brees throwing scoring strikes to three other guys. Even with all of the extra attention, Thomas caught all four of his targets for 92 yards and a touchdown.
Injuries have hit the Eagles' secondary hard throughout the regular season and the situation has not improved much. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby missed the first game and won't play in this one either. Reserve corner Sidney Jones is questionable to play on Sunday after missing the last four games, putting even more pressure on safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Corey Graham when it comes to coverage responsibilities. That could leave linebackers alone in space trying to stay with running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints' second-leading receiver.
And outside of Thomas and Kamara, Brees has even more weapons to throw to compared to the first game against Philadelphia. Tedd Ginn Jr. is back from a knee injury that had sidelined him since Week 4. In his first game back (Week 16), Brees targeted Ginn eight times, as he finished with five catches for 74 yards. He sat out the following week but he is expected to play. All told, 10 different Saints have recorded at least nine catches this season. All 10 are available for Sunday's game, ready to take advantage of a patchwork Eagles secondary.
Philadelphia went on an incredible streak just to return to the playoffs. The Eagles won five of their six final games and should be feared considering their championship pedigree. They went into Chicago and escaped with a win, which is no easy task considering how good the Bears' defense was this season.
But as impressive a season Chicago had, New Orleans is the team that seemed headed for the Super Bowl after rattling off 10 straight wins during the regular season. The offense cooled down over the last six weeks of the regular season, but the defense continued to do its job. How will the Saints look coming off of a first-round bye?
Philadelphia has been a different team since Nick Foles replaced Carson Wentz (again) at quarterback. But New Orleans has been good, if not great, on both sides of the ball for just about the entirety of the regular season. This one may not be a rout like the first meeting, but the Saints simply have too much firepower on both sides of the ball for the Eagles to overcome.
Prediction: Saints 34, Eagles 17
— 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.