Defensive purists may not want to watch tonight when the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles go at it in the opening NFC Wild Card game at 8:10 p.m. ET on NBC. The Saints (11-5) and the Eagles (10-6) are among the top four offenses in the NFL and combined averaged more than 52 points per game during the regular season.
New Orleans is back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus, but the Saints were unable to hold off Carolina for the NFC South crown, meaning they will have to do something they have never done – win a road playoff game – if they want to return to the Super Bowl. Philadelphia meanwhile won the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season, putting the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Now Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles will try and win their first career playoff game together by beating the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning duo of Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
4 Things to Watch
Philadelphia and New Orleans finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in total offense. Both teams averaged about 400 yards per game and also were among the top 10 teams in scoring. Although their offensive approaches are slightly different, there are numerous similarities between these two teams. Both Nick Foles and Drew Brees completed better than 64 percent of their passes, ranked among the top six in passer rating and top 10 in touchdown passes. The veteran Brees finished behind only Peyton Manning in terms of passing yards (5,162) and touchdowns (39), while first-year starter Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick and wound up leading the league in passer rating (119.2) while posting an impressive 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Both signal-callers have legitimate No. 1 receivers that caught at least 82 passes and nine touchdowns, along with a host of other reliable options, including running backs. Neither defenses are terrible by any means, but with offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly calling the plays and the likes of Brees, Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham, DeSean Jackson and others executing them, don’t expect this postseason tilt to develop into a defensive struggle.
Philadelphia’s Backfield Edge
Offensive similarities aside, if there’s one position the Eagles have a significant edge at it’s running back. LeSean McCoy not only led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, but he set a new, single-season franchise record and finished with nearly 300 more than the next guy (Matt Forte) on the list. The man known as Shady averaged 5.1 yards per carry and added 52 receptions for 539 yards in his first season in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. McCoy found the end zone a total of 11 times (nine rush, two receiving) and had 17 total plays from scrimmage that went for at least 20 yards. With McCoy leading the way, Philadelphia was tops in the league in rushing offense at 160.4 yards per game. On the flip side, New Orleans, which is known for being a passing team with Drew Brees under center, came in at 25th overall with just 92.1 yards rushing per game. The Saints as a team averaged 3.8 yards per carry and their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas, 549 yards) has already been ruled out for tonight’s game because of a back injury. McCoy had 598 yards rushing in his last five games alone and on the season the Eagles’ first-team All-Pro (Associated Press) has out-rushed the entire Saints team by 134 yards (1,607 to 1,473). To make matters worse for New Orleans, its defense finished 19th in the league against the run, giving up 112.2 yards rushing per game. McCoy has played a huge role in Philadelphia getting this far, so there’s no reason to not expect to see a lot of Shady tonight.
Saints’ Road Woes
For whatever reason, New Orleans is simply a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The results speak for themselves. The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, averaging a robust 34.0 points per game. On the road, they were 3-5 and scored nearly half (17.8 ppg) as many points. New Orleans got off to a good start this season, winning in Tampa Bay and Chicago to open its road slate, but won just one more away game the rest of the way. In their last three (Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina), the Saints were outscored 78-36. And if that’s not enough, New Orleans is 0-5 all-time on the road in playoff games, including 0-3 with Sean Payton as head coach and Drew Brees as quarterback. The last loss came in the 2011 Divisional Round when San Francisco scored late in the fourth quarter to beat New Orleans 36-32. As the No. 6 seed in the NFC bracket, the Saints already have the deck stacked against them, needing three road victories to get to the Super Bowl. Add in that the Eagles have won four in a row at home and are 3-1 in their past four playoff games at Lincoln Financial Field and it’s clear the Saints have their work cut out for them if they want to get this road monkey off of their backs.
Eagles’ Improving D
On paper, New Orleans’ defense has fared considerably better than Philadelphia’s, and it’s not even close. The Saints finished the regular season fourth in yards allowed (305.7 ypg) while the Eagles were near the bottom (29th, 394.2 ypg). That said, Philadelphia’s D has shown signs of improvement recently, meaning this unit may be peaking at just the right time. Outside of a disastrous showing in Minnesota (455 YA, 48 PA), the Eagles gave up an average of 313 yards and 18.5 points per game in their past five games. Three of these games were at home and the Saints’ road woes were documented earlier. If these two trends continue tonight, then Chip Kelly may not need big numbers from his offense in order to win his first career playoff game as an NFL head coach.
New Orleans Key Player: Jimmy Graham, TE
Philadelphia has the big edge at running back in LeSean McCoy. The same can be said for the Saints when it comes to Graham. A near-unanimous first-team All-Pro as voted by the Associated Press, the tight end led the NFL with 16 touchdowns and finished among the top 15 in both receptions (86) and yards (1,215). A matchup nightmare, Graham posted six 100-yard games and caught at least one touchdown in all but five games despite being hampered by plantar fasciitis for much of the season. The Eagles did a good job against opposing tight ends this season, giving up just three touchdowns, but Graham is no ordinary tight end. He will no doubt draw plenty of defensive attention tonight, but even that may not be enough to slow down the 6-7, 256-pound athletic freak of nature.
Philadelphia Key Player: Nick Foles, QB
Tonight’s game features a matchup of native Texans as Foles followed in Drew Brees’ footsteps when he played quarterback at Westlake High School in Austin. Ten years younger than Brees, Foles now has a chance to beat his Super Bowl-winning idol in his first playoff game. It has already been a dream season for Foles, who took over for an injured Michael Vick and would up going 8-2 as the starter for the NFC East champs. In 13 total games this season, Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, as he threw 27 touchdowns, including a record-tying seven against Oakland, and just two interceptions. He also can make plays with his legs (221 yards rushing, 3 TDs), but the key for Foles tonight is to not try and match Brees throw-for-throw. Unlike Brees, Foles has the NFL’s leading rusher (LeSean McCoy) to lean on, but there will still be times when he will need to make something happen either inside or outside of the pocket. Foles grew up idolizing one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen, but tonight is this Texan’s opportunity to stand tall and make a name for himself.
From an experience standpoint, New Orleans has a clear edge over Philadelphia, as Sean Payton and Drew Brees have posted a 5-3 record in the playoffs together, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV to end the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles are both playing in their first career postseason game.
That said, the Eagles are the home team and have won four in a row at Lincoln Financial Field, They also boast one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses with Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and others taking full advantage of Kelly’s up-tempo system. Then there’s also the Saints’ lack of success on the road, not only this season but also in the playoffs. New Orleans went just 3-5 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and is 0-5 all-time in postseason road contests.
Brees and the Saints are capable of putting up some big offensive numbers of their own, especially with weapons like All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Eagles have much more balance, highlighted by McCoy, the league’s leading rusher. In the end, the Eagles have too much offense for a more one-dimensional Saints attack to overcome, especially one that can’t seem to put it all together when they are the visitors.
Philadelphia 31, New Orleans 27