There isn't a more exciting game on the NFL Wild Card schedule than the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the New Orleans Saints.
Both teams feature strong quarterback play (Nick Foles and Drew Brees), stars at the skill positions (LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson versus Jimmy Graham) and defenses that have played well at times but are vulnerable against high-powered offenses.
In other words, get ready for a shootout. In a game that should be close, the following advantages for each team could make the difference.
Advantage Eagles: Lincoln Financial Field
While the Eagles closed the season by winning four straight games at Lincoln Financial Field, the Saints went 3-5 on the road this season and simply looked like a different team away from home.
Philly's digs couldn't be more different than the Superdome—outdoors (in January weather, nonetheless), a grass surface and a raucous and crazy crowd in favor of the Eagles, not the Saints. Every time Drew Brees tries to audible, you can bet that stadium will be absolutely rocking.
And Brees has essentially become an average quarterback on the road. From Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal:
When eight-time Pro Bowler Drew Brees plays outside the comfortable confines of the Superdome, he turns into an average quarterback. The New Orleans quarterback's road passer rating of 84.8 is nearly identical to the league average rating this season of 84.1—and it is 41.5 points lower than his passer rating at home (126.3).
Even the Saints defense has played better at home, where they've forced 13 turnovers and 28 sacks, as opposed to six turnovers and 21 sacks on the road.
Few teams have performances that diverge as drastically as the Saints do between home and road games. A trip to Philly is a major test.
Advantage Eagles: The Running Game
While the Eagles have the NFL's top rushing attack, the Saints have allowed 111.6 rushing yards per game, 19th in the league. In a game that seems destined to become a shootout, how the Saints handle Kelly's rushing attack could be the decisive factor.
Dealing with McCoy is no easy task. He led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards, scored nine touchdowns on the ground and added 52 receptions for 539 yards and two more scores. He's proven to be the perfect fit for Kelly's system and has arguably the best lateral quickness in the game.
Of course, Philly runs three deep at running back. While McCoy steals the show, when he needs a break the Birds can turn to Bryce Brown (314 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Chris Polk (three rushing touchdowns).
The Eagles beat teams by wearing them down, both with their fast tempo and their ability to gash teams in the running games. That, in turn, opens up the play-action passing attack and leads to big plays. If the Saints aren't tough against the run early, it's hard to imagine them slowing down this Eagles offense.
Advantage Saints: Jimmy Graham
There are few offensive weapons more dangerous than Jimmy Graham. Though listed as a tight end, he has the impact of an elite wide receiver for the Saints and was again excellent in 2013, finishing with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.
So how, exactly, does a team like the Eagles—which has had its problems against tight ends of late—stop him?
Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Inquirer breaks down how the Eagles might approach covering Graham:
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks has often drawn tight ends in coverage this season. Kendricks is listed at 6 feet tall, and Graham's size could pose a mismatch, although that's the case with most of his opponents.
"That factor isn't going to change," Kendricks said. "You've got to study and know what his routes are, know what he's going to be getting, and attack his hands. Try to separate him from the ball."
Kendricks has allowed catches on 82 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, according to the website Pro Football Focus. That's the ninth-highest percentage among NFL inside linebackers.
The Eagles could try a safety on Graham, but that would take the player away from helping over the top. Nate Allen has been a steady defender for the Eagles. There is instability at the other spot. Patrick Chung is struggling and allowed a critical fourth-quarter touchdown against the Cowboys. Wolff has missed five of the last six games with a knee injury, although he is optimistic that he will return on Saturday.
Remember: Martellus Bennett had five catches for 85 yards against the Eagles in Week 16, while Jason Witten torched them for 12 catches and 135 yards. You can bet the Saints will turn to Graham early and often in this contest, and if the Eagles don't have a solution to that problem, it could be a very, very long night in Philadelphia.
Advantage Saints: The Pass Defense
Neither one of these defenses is great, but the Saints have been quite good against the pass this year, allowing just 194.1 passing yards per game. They had a lot of success in that regard due to their ability to get after the quarterback, finishing fourth in sacks with 49, led by Cameron Jordan's 12.5 on the year.
Now, the Eagles offer an interesting counter to that pressure, as a large part of their passing game is predicated on short option routes and the play-action game. Thus, when the Saints get the Eagles in obvious passing situations, you can bet they'll ramp up the pressure and look to force Foles (27 passing touchdowns, just two interceptions) into making mistakes—rare as that's been this year.
A huge key to beating the Eagles is getting them off the field quickly before they get into a rhythm and use their tempo to wear down the defense. If the Saints can really lock down in the passing game and win the battles on third downs, it will go a long way to slowing Philly's electrifying offense.