The Philadelphia Eagles may have made it back to the playoffs for the first time in three years, but all that means is the road only gets harder from here. There are no weak teams in the tournament, especially not in the NFC where one 10-win team didn’t even get in.
There’s no time to even get acclimated to the intensity, because the NFL’s version of a “warm-up” in the postseason is the New Orleans Saints, who are top-five in both offense and defense and have Super Bowl MVP quarterback Drew Brees under center.
How do the Eagles, with the 32nd-ranked pass defense in the league, intend to match up against one of the most prolific passers in history? Brees has already put up a career for the ages, climbing to fifth all-time in yards and fourth in touchdown passes. Among active players, only Denver’s Peyton Manning bests him in either category.
Not only that, but the Saints’ defense is vastly improved this year, especially against the pass. The unit is ranked second against the aerial attack thanks in large part to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s pressure packages wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
They do have one hole at least, as New Orleans allows 4.6 yards per carry, the fourth-highest figure in the league. Get ready for a healthy dose of NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy.
The Eagles do have one more thing going to them—they’re at home. As good as Brees is, he’s 0-4 in postseason games at outdoor venues according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane. It’s hard to win in the road in general, as playoff teams are a whopping 75-20-1 in their own buildings this year.
Philly is currently riding a four-game winning streak at Lincoln Financial Field, and while it won’t be easy, they have a good shot at making it five. The road doesn’t ease up any from there though, as you’ll see every potential playoff opponents presents a unique challenge.
Should the Birds beat the Saints, the next roadblock awaits in Charlotte, NC.
The Eagles have faced (and defeated) some solid defenses this season, but nothing like the Panthers’. Carolina is second overall in total defense, points allowed and against the run. The unit’s “weakness” is through the air, ranked only sixth, but then again the pass rush is absolutely fierce, leading the NFL with 60 sacks this year.
Only the New Orleans Saints have managed to score more than two touchdowns in a game this season versus the Panthers. Kicker Alex Henery better be sharp, because every point is going to count.
Aside from Washington’s Robert Griffin III, who had a miserable year, the Eagles really haven’t seen many mobile quarterbacks this season. Cam Newton will take sacks though—only four signal-callers have been dropped in the backfield more. Philadelphia’s pass rush would have a good shot at containing the former No. 1 overall draft pick.
Expect a low-scoring game when these clubs meet.
There’s a very real chance the Eagles are going to have to defeat three top-five defenses in order to reach the Super Bowl this year—the Saints, the Panthers and then the Seahawks in the NFC Championship.
Seattle was No. 1 against the pass this year and would likely have little trouble limiting a Nick Foles-led passing attack that is already held together by threads. Beyond DeSean Jackson, who would have a difficult time working on All-Pro corner Richard Sherman, which of the Birds receivers or tight ends is going to get open consistently against this deep back seven?
The Eagles have gone against—and had success against—better run defenses than the Seahawks’ though. LeSean McCoy could at least keep them honest if he’s able to pick up for yards per carry.
Of course, the big thing about playing the Seahawks is having to go to Seattle, where they are 15-1 over the past two seasons. However, it might not affect the Eagles quite the same way it does other teams, because they use signals and signs from the sidelines to call in their plays.
It’s still difficult to win on the road no matter what, but the impact of the noise might be lessened to a degree.
Philadelphia matches up surprisingly well against the Seahawks’ offense though, who prefer to rely on Marshawn Lynch and their power-running game. The Eagles have only allowed one 100-yard rusher all season though, which means Russell Wilson might be asked to sling the rock around a bit more.
The question is whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
Should Philadelphia advance to the NFC Championship game, and the Seattle Seahawks lose, it’s worth noting the Eagles would earn another home game, where they will have won five consecutive. That would leave two potential opponents for the conference title.
Up first, in the vein of top-five defenses, the 49ers could be the next in the gauntlet. As usual, San Francisco has one of the stingiest units in the league, allowing the third-fewest points this season.
If the Niners are prone anywhere though, it’s against the pass, specifically on the perimeters. Their corners would have trouble keeping the ball out of DeSean Jackson’s hands, who’s a much better all-around threat this year than people are giving him credit, while Riley Cooper can use his size to stretch the field.
Assuming the Eagles have some measure of success moving the ball, once again their defense sizes up well against the 49ers, who struggle to throw the football consistently. It’s gotten a little better since WR Michael Crabtree returned, as Colin Kaepernick threw for his second-highest number of yards this season in Week 17.
Kaepernick has largely been erratic in his second season as a starter though, hitting just 58.4 percent of his passes. San Fran usually leans on its third-ranked ground attack, but Philly is 10th versus the run, which means Kaep is going to have put the ball in the air at some point.
The other potential opponent in the NFC Championship would be the Packers, whom the Eagles have played and beaten already this season. Well, kind of. That statement is technically accurate, but the Pack was without Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
To say that changes things a bit would be an understatement. Green Bay is a whole different animal with Rodgers under center, as he would be more than capable of slicing and dicing Philadelphia’s soft pass defense.
Last time around, the Birds held Eddie Lacy to just 3.0 yards per carry on the ground as well, but that figure is likely to improve once Rodgers hits a few big passes. His presence is going to do wonders for the running game, which should open up as the defense adjusts.
None of this is to say Philly wouldn’t stand a chance with Rodgers back there. The Packers’ defense is still pretty bad, so the Eagles should be able to put up points. We might be looking at a classic shootout here.
Not unlike the Eagles though, Green Bay is one of those dangerous opponents nobody wants to face right now. It’s hard to pick against a great quarterback, and while he’s not setting records every year like Brees and Manning, Rodgers might be the best.
The Eagles held joint practices with the Patriots in South Philly during training camp over the summer, in part because as Chip Kelly pointed out, they weren’t scheduled to meet in a game this season—unless both clubs reached the Super Bowl. Doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it?
Tom Brady was masterful at picking apart the Birds’ secondary during those sessions. The only time a pass ever hit the ground in practice was when one of Brady’s receivers dropped the ball or ran a poor route.
Of course, this was very early in camp, and the Eagles were still learning the nuances of the 3-4 defense. Then again, Philadelphia is ranked dead last against the pass, and has surrendered 350-yards plus to the likes of Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton in recent weeks.
Besides, the Eagles’ offense would be able to trade punches with New England. In particular, LeSean McCoy would likely slice through the league’s 30th-ranked run defense like a hot knife through butter.
Chip Kelly vs. Bill Belichick would make for one heck of a chess match on the sidelines as well. Only harsh weather at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands could prevent this Super Bowl from being an exciting shootout.
Back in Week 4, the Broncos completely out-classed the Eagles by a score of 52-20 in Denver. As much as some things might have changed, a lot stayed the same.
From there, Philadelphia’s defense went on a streak of nine-straight games holding opponents to 21 points or fewer, prompting much talk of a defensive “turnaround.” Really, all that changed was they weren’t dealing with Peyton Manning under center every week.
The Eagles are ranked dead last against the pass this season, so if you think Manning and the Broncos’ record-setting offense couldn’t hang 50 on them again, reconsider. The only thing that’s slowed them down this season is time of possession, and Chip Kelly doesn’t believe in playing keep-away.
Of course, the big difference with the Birds is who’s at quarterback. In the first game, it was Michael Vick, who managed to lead just one touchdown drive. Nick Foles has proven to be the more efficient option, so it’s possible Philly could hang if they can get into a shootout.
The way their defense is built though, it seems really improbable that the Eagles could beat Denver. On any given Sunday, anything can happen, but the Broncos would be the toughest draw in the entire playoffs.