It wasn’t pretty down the stretch as the New Orleans Saints lost three of their last five games. But a Week 17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thrust the 11-5 Saints into the playoffs, and now that they're here there is only one goal.
The Saints’ opponent, well that may be a two-fold answer.
NFC playoff seeding has New Orleans traveling to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles. But recent history sets this up as not only a Saints battle with the Eagles but also a battle with the team’s road woes.
The Saints achieved perfection at home but finished 3-5 on the season away from the Superdome. New Orleans will not only have to best Philadelphia, but any lingering doubts it can win on the road. And if the losing road record this season wasn’t bad enough, consider also that the Saints have never won a road playoff game in the franchise’s history.
That said, history is only a paper foe. This game is going to be played on the football field, and the winner of this game will win more matchups than its opponent.
Who has the edge in these matchups?
Saints quarterback Drew Brees thrives under pressure, but boy has he been hit a lot this season.
Brees was sacked 37 times and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was pressured (sacks, quarterback hits and hurries all included) 171 times. Brees wasn’t one of the most-hit or hurried quarterbacks around the NFL, but this season has been abnormally bad by the recent standard set by the Saints' offensive lines.
With only 37 sacks this season as a defense, Philadelphia ranks 20th in the league at pulling down opposing quarterbacks. That should give New Orleans some hope for being able to protect Brees. But the offensive line is still going to have to worry about Philadelphia’s linebacker corps.
Four of the top-five sack artists on the team come from the linebacker position with Trent Cole leading the way with eight sacks. Pro Football Focus has Cole ranked as the No. 13 3-4 outside linebacker in the league with 51 total pressures. Most of Cole’s pass-rush attempts (73.9 percent) come from the right side, which means he’ll be attacking rookie left tackle Terron Armstead. This will be a matchup to watch.
If Armstead can hold his own, the Saints will prevail in the pass-protection battle as the rest of the offensive line should fare well on Saturday.
Drew Brees should have a field day against this Eagles secondary.
On one side of the line you have Brees, who ranked second in the NFL this season both in yards passing (5,162) and touchdown passes (39) touchdown passes and sixth with a 104.7 passer rating. Conversations about elite NFL quarterbacks always include the man under center in New Orleans.
On the other side of the line is an absolutely abysmal defensive backfield.
Philadelphia allowed a league worst 4,636 (290 yards per game) yards passing this season, which means the potent aerial attack that Brees can orchestrate should move with ease against the Eagles.
The one caveat here is that while Philadelphia’s pass defense was the worst in the league, the Eagles ranked 14th in passing touchdowns allowed. While moving the ball downfield through the air seemed easy, scoring in that manner wasn’t.
Brees has a number of tools in his arsenal to remedy that. Expect tight end Jimmy Graham to be a huge red-zone target on Saturday and look for wide receivers Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem to spread the field and make the deep ball a scoring tool for Brees.
Wide receiver Marques Colston will do a lot of work moving the chains for New Orleans and running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas will help, but points are going to have to be put up on big plays and by uncoverable tight ends.
The Saints have only eclipsed the 100-yard mark rushing five times this season, and there’s been no real rhyme or reason to finding lasting success in the run game.
The Eagles have only allowed five teams to run for 100 yards or more against them this season, and only one time has a single running back gone for more than 100.
Philadelphia has done a good job this season at shutting down opposing threats in the running game, and Saturday the Eagles shouldn’t have any problem keeping New Orleans at bay.
New Orleans, over the last few weeks, has had some success at running the football. Khiry Robinson averaged 4.2 yards per carry in Sunday’s Week 17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mark Ingram averaged 6.4 yards per carry in a Week 16 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The problem either is finding a back who can perform consistently or convincing this high-powered passing offense to commit to the running game.
There are too few carries and too many backs for any one New Orleans ball-carrier to dominate. But that’s not a terrible problem to have. Running the football a ton is never the game plan for head coach Sean Payton, and with the downfield weapons he has, why should it be?
The New Orleans Saints throw the ball a ton. Quarterback Drew Brees attempted 650 passes this season, only Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons (651) and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos (659) threw the football more often.
Because of this propensity to air it out, four Saints caught more than 70 passes this season, led by tight end Jimmy Graham with 86 catches. Wide receiver Marques Colston caught 75 passes and running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles had 77 and 71 catches, respectively.
Look closely at that list of the top four pass-catchers for the Saints. Only one is a true receiver. For the purposes of this matchup discussion, we’re going to forget about the combined 148 catches from the running backs (although that will be a huge part of Saturday’s game). This contest is just receivers versus defensive backs.
Let’s start with Colston, who’s such a problematic matchup, because he's 6’4” and can line up in the slot. When he does that he’ll likely be covered by Philadelphia corner Brandon Boykin, the hero of the Week 17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Colston should win that matchup regularly against the 5’10” Boykin.
Graham, who at tight end will likely draw some coverage from the secondary, can’t be stopped. He led the league with 16 touchdown catches and posted 1,215 yards receiving.
Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem all pose deep threats to the Eagle secondaries and all get their fair share of playing time. All three had a reception of 40 yards or more last week against Tampa Bay, and all three scored touchdowns.
Not only do the Saints receivers pose huge matchup issues for the Eagles, there are so many of them that New Orleans both can keep players rested and bombard a defense with four- and five-wide sets, which seems to make it impossible to cover everyone.
The offensive line for the Philadelphia Eagles hasn’t done a fabulous job at keeping pressure off its quarterback, but it hasn’t been terrible either.
In fact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Eagles rank dead center in the league at No. 16 with 178 total pressures (sacks, quarterback hits and hurries all included) allowed.
The Eagles have one of the more effective left tackles in the game in Jason Peters, who has only allowed four sacks and three quarterback hits all season. He’ll face off against one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the game in Cam Jordan.
Jordan is the second-ranked 3-4 defensive end in the NFL at getting to the quarterback. Jordan has more quarterback hurries than anyone on the list and is tied for the lead among 3-4 defensive ends with 13 sacks.
This will be an interesting battle to watch all day, but it won’t be where the trench war is won or lost.
Expect Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to attack Eagles right guard Todd Herremans and right tackle Lane Johnson. Herremans allowed four sacks this season with 10 quarterback hits and 35 hurries. Johnson has allowed 10 sacks, eight hits and 40 hurries.
Ryan moves his pass-rush options around quite a bit pre-snap, but look for linebacker Junior Galette and defensive end Akiem Hicks to wreak havoc on that side on the line.
The battle between Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and the New Orleans secondary is going to be a battle of strength versus strength.
Foles played in only 13 games this season—and started just 10—but threw for 2,891 yards and ranked eighth in the NFL with 27 touchdown passes. He’s thrown 11 touchdown passes over his last five games and only two picks.
The Saints, however, have the second-ranked pass defense in the league. New Orleans allowed only 194.1 yards passing per game in 2013, and in three of the last four regular-season games, it kept opposing teams under 200 yards passing.
The Saints get it done with a true shutdown corner in Keenan Lewis and the ability to use five defensive backs with regularity because the defensive front gets enough pressure on quarterbacks with four or five pass-rushers.
Losing safety Kenny Vaccaro for the rest of the season is going to negatively affect this secondary, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should find enough ways to confuse Foles to make this a winnable battle for New Orleans.
Just like the Saints have an “easy win” with the matchup of Drew Brees versus the Philadelphia secondary, the Eagles have an “easy win” with running back LeSean McCoy.
McCoy was one of three running backs with 200 or more carries that averaged five yards or more rushing the football this season. He led the league with 1,607 rushing yards, 268 yards better than the second-place ball-carrier, Chicago’s Matt Forte.
One thing the New Orleans defense doesn’t do well is stop the run.
The Saints ranked 19th in the NFL by allowing 111.6 yards rushing per game and ranked 28th by allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
New Orleans puts so much effort into getting after the quarterback and just as much effort defending the pass that if a running back gets free into the second level, it’s hard to stop said running back. The absence of safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was such a force in the box, could exacerbate this mismatch.
That has to be music to the ears of McCoy, who should rack up the yardage on Saturday.
While the New Orleans Saints had four pass catchers with 70 or more receptions, the Philadelphia Eagles only have one in DeSean Jackson. But Jackson is going to be the best wide receiver on the field bar none.
At 5’10” Jackson won’t be the biggest player on the field by a long shot, but he’ll be the biggest threat. He’s a dangerous one-on-one matchup and can absolutely damage a defense if he’s not checked—the Eagles may consider even mugging him—at the line of scrimmage.
Riley Cooper has been targeted over the last month almost as much as Jackson, making the Eagles duo a serious threat. The problem is that Cooper doesn’t catch everything thrown his direction.
In Philadelphia’s five December games, Cooper was targeted 29 times but only came down with 16 receptions. He’s going to have to step up his game Saturday for Philadelphia to succeed against a stingy New Orleans secondary.
The Saints are really going to have to hunker down on Philadelphia tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek. Of Nick Foles’ 11 touchdown passes in December, Ertz had three as does Celek. That means more than 50 percent of Philadelphia’s scoring through the air over the last five games has been handled by the tight end position.
For everything decent that Philadelphia brings, New Orleans should have an answer. Jackson could do damage, but Keenan Lewis also could slow him down dramatically.
Lewis' partner at the other corner spot, Corey White, has shown both flashes of brilliance and mediocrity of late, but he will step up to shut down Cooper. After that, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will find a way to contain Philadelphia’s tight ends with a combination of Rafael Bush and a non-blitzing linebacker.
By my count here, the final tally has New Orleans ahead 6-2.
|New Orleans Saints||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Saints OL vs. Eagles DL||X|
|Brees vs. Pass Defense||X|
|Saints RB's vs. Eagles Front Seven||X|
|Saints WR's vs. Eagles Secondary||X|
|Eagles OL vs. Saints DL||X|
|Foles vs. Pass Defense||X|
|Eagles RB's vs. Saints Front Seven||X|
|Eagles WR's vs. Saints Secondary||X|
Playing on the road and in the weather could reduce the impact of that 6-2 advantage by the Saints, but on paper New Orleans is the better team. Even though Philadelphia won its division and is hosting this game, New Orleans had a better record this season.
But records will be thrown out on Saturday. Can New Orleans win on the road in the playoffs?
My pick was already submitted to the Bleacher Report brain trust, and I picked the Saints by four points.
Yes the Saints struggle on the road, and yeah it’s been really bad. New Orleans was 3-5 this season away from the Superdome and lost its last three on the road. But the Eagles have the league’s last-place pass defense and can’t possibly hope to contain Drew Brees and his potent aerial attack.