A surprise upset in Chicago Sunday night meant the Philadelphia Eagles, and not the Dallas Cowboys, would be visiting New Orleans for the next round of the playoffs.
As far as potential playoff matchups go, it’s hard for the Saints to ask for better than a team they smacked around to the tune of 48-7 earlier this year. Of course, that probably won’t be the margin of victory again, and the Eagles are playing better now than they were then, but New Orleans is still an 8-point favorite for good reason.
Here, then, is a preview of the game, with discussions of the key matchups and of how the Saints can win.
When the Saints have the ball
The Saints’ offense went through a bit of a slump toward the later stretch of the season, but still finished strong overall, and they bounced back against Pittsburgh in week 16 when everyone was healthy. Strong in all facets of the game, and playing at home, if everyone is healthy, the Saints should be able to execute their offense smoothly.
Two major factors might interfere with that. One is the Eagles’ defensive line, their strongest unit and one of the deepest in the league. They’re led by All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and versatile veteran Michael Bennett, but they have a lot of talent top-to-bottom, including veterans Haloti Ngata and Chris Long and former first-round pick Brandon Graham. The Eagles’ strength against the run and their pass rush comes from this line, and it could be the key to stopping the Saints.
The Saints have the talent to counter their defensive line with their own offensive line… if everyone is healthy. The biggest worry right now for the Saints is the level of nagging injuries bothering the o-line; four of the five starters (everyone except Max Unger) as well as backup left tackle Jermon Bushrod have been limited in practice this week. Certainly they’ll all play, but it would be a lot better if they were 100 percent.
The Eagles secondary has been something of an unreliable unit for them all year, between injuries and a dearth of experience. Two of the four starters, including ostensible #1 cornerback Ronald Darby, have been on injured reserve most of the year. By DVOA the Eagles have struggled most against #2 receivers and running backs. The last Saints-Eagles matchup reflected this, as Tre’Quan Smith had his best game of the year with 10 catches for 157 yards. (Alvin Kamara only caught one pass, the famous fourth-down attempt with the game well in hand where he split out and simply caught a “go” route down the sideline for a 37-yard TD. The Eagles double-teamed Michael Thomas last time and probably will again, although last time he still caught four passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. And this time, Ted Ginn is back in the saddle as the #2 receiver. Don’t be surprised if the Saints take some deep shots early, both to use Ginn’s speed in the advantageous matchup and also to keep the defense honest and open up the passing game underneath.
The Eagles are a better run-stopping team, but the Saints had a strong performance against them back in week 11, and even if the Eagles do better, they’ll still have a formidable challenge on their hands.
The Saints have a really good matchup here for lighting up the Superdome through the air.
When the Eagles have the ball
Carson Wentz threw three interceptions against the Saints last time, but Nick Foles is back at starter for the Eagles, hoping to recreate last year’s magic, when he similarly took over for Wentz after a late-season injury and guided the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Foles does a few things very well, like play-action, but his skill set is more limited than Wentz’s, and if the Saints can take away what he does well and force him to improvise, they stand a great chance of getting him in trouble.
Much like when the Saints have the ball, the matchup in the trenches will be strength vs. strength. The Eagles have an All-Pro center in Jason Kelce and three other current or former All-Pro linemen. Last matchup, Kelce only played six snaps, and backup Steven Wisniewski was dominated on the regular by Sheldon Rankins. This time around, it probably won’t be so easy, but the matchup is still favorable for the Saints in a number of ways.
New Orleans’ strong run defense facing Philadelphia’s weaker run offense means the Saints should be able to force the Eagles into unfavorable down-and-distance situations and force them to pass. That could be favorable for the Saints as well, based on the matchup.
As Derrik Klaasen noted for Football Outsiders, the Eagles were one of the most frequent– and successful– teams at running a two-tight end set (12 personnel) in the passing game, with Zach Ertz (the new record holder for tight end receptions in a single season) and second-round pick Dallas Goedert. But the Saints have been one of the best teams in the league defending tight ends in the passing game (fourth by DVOA), so if they play up to their capabilities, they should be strong.
The Saints have been worse at defending wide receivers, although most of that comes from early in the year when the team was getting routinely torched for big games. I think the team actually has strong matchups here: Marshon Lattimore should be able to blanket Alshon Jeffery, Eli Apple is (I believe) superior to Nelson Agholor, and while Golden Tate is a very good receiver, P.J. Williams’ performance in the slot (Saints are 6th in DVOA against “other WR” beyond 1s and 2s to boot) makes me think he can limit Tate and keep him from big plays. Add Marcus Williams’ range on the back end, and the Saints shouldn’t have to do anything too fancy in coverage. That said, Philadelphia’s offensive line being what it is, don’t be surprised if you see New Orleans blitz fairly regularly to try to rattle Foles and force throws before they’re open.
The big worry for the Saints is as detailed at the beginning of this section: Foles’ play action game and fearlessness throwing downfield could break plays open if the defensive backs aren’t careful and bite too easily. Philadelphia’s best chance of staying in the game may be completing bombs, and the Saints need to protect against the big play and not give the Eagles a chance to stay in the game that way.
The Saints probably won’t win 48-7 again, but they’re 8-point favorites for a reason: They’re the better overall team at every unit, and in particular they match up well with the Eagles, with an offense that can attack their weaknesses and a defense that is at its best against their strengths. This was almost surely the best matchup for the Saints in the divisional round, and even if they don’t dominate to the degree they did in week 11, this is their game to lose.
Saints 27, Eagles 17