The New Orleans Saints knew by kickoff of their Week 17 game that any adventure into the playoffs would start with a road game. The only thing they didn’t know, as the dust settled on the rest of the NFL, is where they’d have to travel.
Something else that the Saints knew, as painful a memory as it is—both of recent weeks and throughout the history of the franchise—is that going on the road would be very detrimental in a one-and-done postseason situation.
This team hasn’t fared well on the road this season. The Saints are 8-0 at home in the Superdome and just 3-5 on the road, scoring 34 points per game at home and just 17.8 on the road. That’s the short-term painful memory.
Wild-card round preview: Average Saints home game is a 34-16 victory. Average road game is a 22-18 defeat http://t.co/TdfcQHhKx6— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) December 31, 2013
New Orleans also hasn’t done anything historically on the road during the playoffs—the long-term grief. In five tries, the Saints are winless on the road in the postseason. If not for an identical road playoff record by the Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans would be the worst road playoff team in NFL history.
When the final minutes of the 2013 regular season wound off the clock, New Orleans got a bit of good news. The Philadelphia Eagles, by beating the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the day, secured the third seed on the NFC’s side of the playoff bracket and would play host to the Saints.
Even as a division champion, the Eagles are a perfect matchup for the wild-card Saints and their best chance of putting these road woes behind them.
No one can argue that the turnaround on defense the Saints enjoyed this season was a remarkable feat, and one of the big reasons the team saw success and has the opportunity to make a playoff run. But make no qualms about it, the offense is the meal ticket for New Orleans. If quarterback Drew Brees can get the offense firing on the road as it does at home, these Saints can get into the Super Bowl conversation.
Those talks begin Saturday in Philadelphia.
Brees is going to lead the NFL’s second-ranked passing offense into Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, and with it he can brag about the 10th-ranked scoring offense as well. There isn’t much Philadelphia can do to thwart the Saints aerial attack.
Philadelphia ranked dead last in the NFL with a passing defense that allowed 289.8 yards passing per game. At 23.9 points per game allowed, the Eagles ranked 29th is scoring defense, too.
That sound you hear is Brees’ excited heartbeat, and possibly a little salivating.
Who will have the biggest day for the Saints?
The Saints couldn’t ask for a better situation to try to erase everything that’s gone wrong on the road this season, and in playoff seasons past. New Orleans is going to get to flex its muscles and use its strength against the weakest aspect of Philadelphia’s game plan—and let’s not sugarcoat this; the New Orleans passing offense is one of the most potent in the league, not only this season, but perhaps in the history of the league.
How are the Saints going to attack this mismatch?
The biggest weapon the Saints will have Saturday is tight end Jimmy Graham. But let’s talk about that below. The wide receivers for the Saints should have plenty of opportunities to shine.
Covering Marques Colston is going to be a problem for Philadelphia, whose tallest corner is 6’1”. Colston’s 6’4” frame is going to provide a few situations where the big receiver can pull passes down that the defensive backs can’t get to.
Even more important for Colston than his size will be the fact that he can line up anywhere on the field, particularly in the slot, and be dangerous. The Eagles are likely going to cover Colston with cornerbacks Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher and leave the smaller Brandon Boykin to cover Kenny Stills or whomever else is on the opposite side of the field from Colston.
The problem is that Williams and Fletcher combined have only covered receivers in the slot 18 times this season (nine times apiece), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Boykin has been the cornerback asked to cover the slot receiver for most of the season for the Eagles, but at 5’10” he gives up too much size to Colston.
Expect Colston to have a big game.
Pro Football Focus
So, if Colston is going to be wreaking havoc in the slot, Stills and fellow wide receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem are going to be working outside. This is where Brees is going to look for that trio to take the top off Philadelphia’s defense.
All three of the Saints outside receivers on Saturday will be deep-threat options, and each caught a pass of 40 yards or more in Week 17 against Tampa Bay. The Eagles have given up nine plays of 40 yards or more through the air this season and only three teams in the league have given up more than Philadelphia’s 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Whether it is Stills, Meachem or Moore, someone, likely more than once, is going to pull down a big pass play of 20 yards or more. Head coach Sean Payton is going to game-plan for it and Brees is going to look for it.
As if the wide receivers for New Orleans aren’t enough of a threat to the Eagles, New Orleans’ tight end is the biggest matchup nightmare of them all.
It’s easy to point to Graham and see he led the league with 16 touchdown receptions this season, and that’s including every position—not just tight ends. He also ranked first among tight ends with 86 receptions and 1,215 yards through the air.
Oh, and Graham is 6’7” with the wheels of a track star and the size of an NBA small forward, too.
The Philadelphia coaching staff is going to spend a good amount of time this week trying to find a way to slow down Graham. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks is the most athletic linebacker of the bunch and DeMeco Ryans might be the best cover option, but Kendricks is barely 6' tall, and Ryans had trouble with Dallas tight end Jason Witten last week.
The Eagles could put Williams on Graham, as the New England Patriots had success putting cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham earlier in the season. But Williams is no Talib, and taking him away from Colston could have a trickle-down effect on the Eagles defensive backfield that could turn out all kinds of wrong.
Philadelphia did a decent job this season of keeping opposing tight ends at bay, allowing them just 58.9 receiving yards per game and only 4.8 catches per contest. But over the final two weeks of the season, tight ends brutalized the Eagles.
Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett had five catches for 85 yards in Week 16 against the Eagles and a 30-yard catch (another example of big passing plays hurting Philadelphia). Witten caught 12 passes for 135 yards in Week 17 for Dallas and had two catches (34 yards and 28 yards) of 20 yards or more.
It appears that Graham is going to have plenty of chances to put up big numbers against the Eagles.
It also appears that the Saints should feast on the Eagles through the air. Yes, it’s just one aspect of the game and there are plenty of matchups between these two teams that don’t involve the Saints and their aerial attack. But this matchup is the biggest portion of the New Orleans offense and weakest link for Philadelphia.
This game will be won or lost according to how well New Orleans can pass against the Eagles. And the advantage on paper weighs heavily toward the Saints.