When the Eagles have the ball: We saw in the Eagles’ wild-card win over the Chicago Bears that having a run game isn’t required to pull a road upset. Sure, the Eagles had a few big conversions but pretty much were shut down on the ground — 23 carries, 42 yards. The last time the Eagles played the Saints, it was similar production (48 yards), albeit on fewer attempts (12).
The game got out of hand fast. It was 24-7 Saints at the half, as then-starting QB Carson Wentz struggled (19-of-33 passing, 156 yards, three picks). Now, Nick Foles is at the trigger, and he’s completed more than 70 percent of his passes in his past four starts, including the playoff victory. But he also has thrown at least one pick in each, including two last week.
Alshon Jeffery has been Foles’ main target, but he’s been spreading the ball around. TEs Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert each made clutch grabs last week, and Golden Tate caught the game-winner on fourth down. The Eagles are balanced in the passing game and dangerous.
The Saints’ defense was on a hot streak down the stretch, including during the first Eagles meeting at the Superdome, allowing 74 points (12.3 ppg) from Weeks 10 through 15 before many reserves saw more time in the final two games of the regular season. But they’re rested now and haven’t left home in almost a month.
Two young defenders — CB Eli Apple and DE Marcus Davenport — must step up on the big stage. They’re capable of big performances or they could be exposed.
When the Saints have the ball: Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing game were held down in his final four starts before sitting out in Week 17. He completed 69.2 percent of his passes (down from 76.4 his first 11 games), averaged 214.3 pass yards (down from a 285-yard average) and had a TD-INT ratio of 3-3 (down from 29-2). But he also torched this defense for 363 yards and four TDs on 22-of-30 passing not that long ago.
Philly’s pass rush must come as much from the interior as it does from the edges. If DT Fletcher Cox is as tough to block against the Saints as he was in Chicago, Brees’ timing and the Saints’ run game might be off kilter. Also worrisome: The Saints’ O-line is beat up, even with the added rest.
Still, RBs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are a tough duo to contain. They are effective running inside and out and also catching the ball. WR Michael Thomas can burn any of the Eagles’ DBs; he might be matched with the longer corner, Rasul Douglas, but running mate Avonte Maddox must not bite on double moves as much as he did last week.
Special teams: The Saints have an excellent kicking game, strong coverage teams and a decent return unit. Kicker Wil Lutz has missed two FG tries (out of 30) and one XP attempt (out of 53), but he hit what looked like the game-winner in this round of the playoffs on the road a year ago before the “Minneapolis Miracle” undercut that. The Eagles have solid units here but were outplayed last week on special teams prior to Treyvon Hester’s late FG block.
Coaching: Saints coach Sean Payton is 5-0 in home playoff games, has a rested team and already manhandled this Eagles club. But the late-season regression and the change from Wentz to Foles means you probably can throw that game out the window. Doug Pederson has rallied an underachieving Eagles team from a 4-6 start, with only an overtime loss since the Saints loss. This is a confident team with aggressive coaching, especially defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who will bring pressure.
Prediction: There will be no blowout this time. The Eagles come in a brand-new team from their last trip to New Orleans, and Foles gives them a chance. But betting against the Saints in this building feels foolish, and they’ll have just enough in all three phases to survive a thriller.
Saints 28, Eagles 24