Saints vs. Eagles: Keys to Victory for Each Team in Wild-Card Clash

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014

Dec 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (25) prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Brees versus Nick Foles. LeSean McCoy versus Jimmy Graham. The league's No. 2 passing attack against its top rushing offense.

Oh baby, this one is going to be fun.

But what are the main keys for the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints? What factors will ultimately dictate the outcome of this likely shootout?

Let's break 'em down.

Eagles: Slow Down Jimmy Graham

There isn't a more dangerous weapon on the Saints' team or a tougher matchup for opposing defenses, so while the Saints have plenty of weapons, slowing down Graham will be the primary key for this Eagles' defense.

Can they do it?

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, so it's hard to like their odds. Graham is far more talented than either of those players, finishing this season with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

When Graham went without a catch against the New England Patriots, top corner Aqib Talib generally shadowed Graham. It should be noted, of course, that Graham wasn't 100 percent in that game as he dealt with an ankle injury. The Eagles could turn to Cary Williams, a big and physical corner, to fill a similar role, though that might leave them vulnerable on the outside.

Or maybe they'll try to beat him up on the line and play him in bracket coverage, as teams liked to do against the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez in the red zone this season. 

Whatever the Eagles choose, slowing down Graham will be huge.

Brees simply hasn't been as good on the road (2,327 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, nine picks and a 64.0 completion percentage) as at home this season (2,835 passing yards, 27 TDs, three picks and a 73.6 completion percentage), so taking away his favorite target would bode very well for the Eagles. 

Saints: Put the Game in the Hands of Nick Foles

Let's not mince words: Foles has been excellent this year. Just superb. While people like to point out that this will be his first playoff game, that's a bit misleading—for all intents and purposes, the game against the Dallas Cowboys to get into the postseason in the first place was a playoff game.

To beat the Eagles, though, stopping Foles isn't the first priority. It's all about stifling the Eagles' running game. 

Quite simply, the Eagles become exponentially better on offense with each first down. It allows them to push the tempo, wear down the defense and dictate matchups. They are able to get into that rhythm with the league's top rushing attack, spreading teams out and then sending McCoy into the gaps that are naturally created.

If Rob Ryan and company can stack the box and effectively use run blitzes to slow down McCoy, they can force the Eagles into long third-down conversions. While it's no guarantee that Foles won't torch them anyway, the Saints have a much better pass defense (second in the NFL) than run defense (19th) this season.

Everything in Philly stems from the running game. They use it to keep third downs manageable, keep their tempo offense going, wear down defenses over the course of the game and score enough points to bail out a defense that is often on the field quite a bit and doesn't have the talent on offense.

If Ryan can draw up a game plan to slow down that running game, he'll completely throw a wrench into the powerful engine of the Eagles' offense. It's arguably the biggest key of the game for New Orleans.

Eagles: Win the Turnover Battle

Dec 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin (22) celebrates with his teammates on the field after making an interception in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. The Eagle beat the Cowboys 24-22
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Lost amidst the hype surrounding Chip Kelly's offense and Foles' ascension has been how consistently the team wins the turnover battle. The Eagles are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the fourth-best turnover differential in the NFL at +12.

They are tied for third in the NFL with 31 takeaways, and 10 of their 19 turnovers this season came from current backup quarterbacks Michael Vick and Matt Barkley. Quite simply, the Eagles protect the ball with Foles under center.

In the Associated Press's Rob Maaddi's article in the Edmonton JournalFoles broke down his mentality when it comes to protecting the ball while he's under center.

I just try and be as smart with the ball as I can. I always want to get the ball out of my hands, so a sack doesn't happen. But the one thing you don't want to do is put the ball in harm's way, because a turnover usually gives the other team good field possession and momentum. You can see what happens when a turnover happens. Everyone on the sideline is jumping around and excited. You don't want to give them momentum.

While the Saints protect the ball just as well (19 turnovers), they have not as been as proficient at taking the ball away, with just 19 on the season. They've been very bad at forcing turnovers on the road, with just six.

Very quietly, the Eagles' ability to win the turnover battle has been one of the biggest keys of the season. It will once again be a major factor against the Saints.

Saints: Start Strong

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked as Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (76) comes from the left and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) holds Brees's jersey and free safety Mike Mitchell (21)
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For any road team, the best way to neutralize a rowdy home crowd is to start quickly. It gives the team confidence, puts the pressure solely on the home team's shoulders and forces the home side to make early adjustments. 

It's especially important for the Saints, though, as Mike Triplett of ESPN noted.

The Saints have not scored a touchdown on their opening possession in any road game this year. And in each of their past four road losses, they’ve had at least one first-half turnover that led to a touchdown for the other team. 

The Saints had a total of six first-half turnovers in those four games (two interceptions at the New York Jets, a sack-fumble at Seattle, two interceptions on their first two drives at St. Louis and an interception at Carolina). 

And turning back the clock a little further, the Saints had four first-half turnovers in their last playoff game—a 36-32 loss at San Francisco two years ago. 

Stopping an explosive Eagles' offense won't be easy. If the Saints hurt themselves early, the Eagles will take advantage and sprint out to an early lead.

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