Charting the Philadelphia Eagles' Path to the NFC Championship Game

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 1, 2014

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29:   Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on after their 24 to 22 win over the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium on December 29, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

One year removed from a tumultuous 4-12 season, the Philadelphia Eagles are probably satisfied with the mere fact they're NFC East champions again and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The fact is, the stars might actually be aligned for the Eagles to win a playoff game for the first time since the 2008-09 season. 

Hell, they might even have a clearer than expected path to the NFC Championship Game.

Let's lay it out for you.

Why they should beat the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night

For starters, Drew Brees and the Saints have to travel to Philadelphia.

You'll likely hear this quite a lot this week, but New Orleans isn't a good road team, and Brees isn't quite as strong outdoors.

With temperatures expected to be low, the Eagles have a clear advantage, having won four straight at home by a combined 68 points.

The Saints were just 3-5 on the road this year, averaging only 17.8 points per game. Only five teams scored fewer points away from home than they did.

While they haven't played any "cold weather" road games this year, they did lose to the Jets with the game-time temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in early November. 

It's expected to be below 30 degrees on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. The last time Brees and the Saints played a playoff game in those temperatures, he completed just 55 percent of his passes as they were blown out by the Bears in 2006.

It was also below 50 degree when they were upset by the Seahawks in the 2010 playoffs. 

Even if we include regular-season games, in the Brees era, the Saints are 0-3 when it's below 30 and a mere 7-8 when it's below 50. Overall, in his career, Brees is 0-for-3 in road playoff games. 

Saints: Cold-weather games, Drew Brees era
WinsLossesComp. %Pass TD/INT
Below 50 degrees786530/15
Below 30 degrees03565/5
Pro Football Reference

This is also a good matchup for the Eagles on paper.

Philly led the NFL with 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and LeSean McCoy was the league's best back this season, finishing with almost 200 more yards from scrimmage than every other offensive player in the game. 

Meanwhile, the Saints defense gave up 4.6 yards per carry, which was the fifth-worst average in the NFL. Dudes like Zac Stacy and Chris Ivory gashed them this season, so it would be surprising if McCoy and Bryce Brown weren't able to do the same. 

Eagles offense vs. Saints defense on the ground
Eagles offense5.11st
Saints defense4.628th
Pro Football Reference

Yes, Brees is still Brees. We're talking about an All-Pro-caliber quarterback who threw for over 5,000 yards for the fourth time this year (nobody else has ever done so more than once) while posting a 104.7 passer rating.

He's a magician, and he can take over games. 

Yes, the Eagles defense is still vulnerable. They gave up 6,307 yards this year, which was the fourth-highest total in the NFL, and it's not as though their pass rush has been consistent.

That's a tad unfortunate, since the key to stopping Brees this year has come by getting lots of pressure. He threw seven picks and completed just 47 percent of his passes while under duress this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

However, this Eagles defense bends while rarely breaking. They've surrendered more than 22 points just once since Week 5 and Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin are red-hot in coverage.

Williams did a superb job against Dez Bryant on Sunday, limiting the beast of a receiver to just three catches on seven targets, per PFF. Meanwhile, Boykin recorded his eighth takeaway of the year to put the Cowboys away. He allowed only two catches on five targets against Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. 

Thanks partly to Boykin's presence, the potential turnover battle also favors the Eagles, who have 12 takeaways in their last five games overall. The Saints don't turn it over at a high rate, but the road demons have also gotten to them in this area. They've turned it over five times in their last two games away from the Superdome. 

This will likely be a close game, and Brees has the ability to take it over, but the majority of the elements at play on Saturday night will favor Chip Kelly's squad. 

Why they could beat the Carolina Panthers in the divisional playoffs

The Eagles were lucky to grab the No. 3 seed because it ensures them a second-round matchup with the Panthers rather than the Seahawks. Carolina was very good at home this year, going 7-1, but the Seahawks were next-level good in the Pacific Northwest.

Carolina lost to Seattle at home early and bolstered their home resume with blowout victories over non-competitive teams like Atlanta, St. Louis and the Giants

The Eagles are a hell of a road team, having won five of their last six games away from the Linc, including dominant victories over the Bucs, Raiders and Packers

NFL's hottest teams, second half of 2013
TeamRecordPoints dif.
Philadelphia Eagles7-1+95
Carolina Panthers7-1+27
Seattle Seahawks6-2+106
Denver Broncos6-2+82
Pro Football Reference

It will also be Cam Newton's first playoff game. Yes, it would also only be Nick Foles' second playoff game, but the unpredictability factor is there. 

Despite how well the Panthers played this season, would anybody really be surprised if they went one-and-done in the postseason? 

The point is that this is a very winnable game for the Eagles, who are the NFL's most productive team on the ground. Carolina's defense is stout in every way, but the Panthers did surrender 186 yards and 5.8 yards per carry in back-to-back December weeks against Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. They can be had by McCoy and company. 

We're just saying there's a (decent) chance

Six of the last eight Super Bowl winners didn't have first-round byes and 41 percent of the teams that have made the NFC and AFC Championship Games since 2005 have done so despite being a third, fourth, fifth or sixth seed. 

There's little reason to believe the Eagles can't make a run to their sixth NFC title game in a 13-year span. 

With only one starter on injured reserve and only one listed below "probable" on the latest official injury report, they're the healthiest team in the playoffs, and you know what they say about peaking at the right time. 

Health of the 12 playoff teams
TeamPlayers on injured reserveNon-probable on last injury report
NFL PR/Ourlads

This team has the makings of one that could do some serious damage in January. The path is visible, and conquerable. 


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