New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Takeaways from Philly's 26-24 Loss

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IJanuary 5, 2014

New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Takeaways from Philly's 26-24 Loss

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    For one fleeting moment in the fourth quarter of Wild Card Saturday, it felt like the Philadelphia Eagles found solid footing. Chip Kelly’s squad just finished chipping away at a 13-point second-half deficit with Nick Foles’ three-yard touchdown to tight end Zach Ertz to pull the Birds ahead by one over the visiting New Orleans Saints.

    That ground gave way quickly when Darren Sproles took the ensuing kickoff back 39 yards, plus 15 more tacked on by officials for Cary Williams’ horse-collar tackle. The Saints offense started in Philadelphia territory, where Drew Brees engineered a conservative drive that bled the remaining 4:54 off the clock and ended with Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal as time expired.

    No last possession, not even a chance for a Hail Mary. The Eagles were eliminated from the playoffs just like that, 26-24.

    Nothing lessens the blow of a season coming to an end, but at least there’s some tiny shred of hope when the offense has the ball and goes down swinging. Waiting for the Saints to set up a game-winning field goal was such a helpless feeling.

    Kelly reflected on how the short field that resulted from that kickoff took the game out of his defense's hands at his postgame news conference broadcast on Eagles Postgame Live on Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia.

    I thought our defense did a really good job in the second half. The kickoff obviously hurt ... it made it a short field, you're just trying 15, 20 yards to put yourself into field-goal range. I thought after we scored, if we pin them down deep and could get a start, we'd have a shot at it.

    Kickoff aside, plenty else had to go wrong for the Eagles for it to end that way. One last time this season, let's dissect what happened.

Saints Run All over the Eagles

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    Everybody was worried about how Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham would stress the NFL’s worst pass defense. Who knew New Orleans would have so much success pounding the rock?

    The Saints offense took it to an Eagles defense that ranked 10th against the rush in 2013. Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Darren Sproles combined to carry the football 30 times for 171 yards, a devastating 5.7 average. Ingram also punched one into the end zone for six.

    The running game did immeasurable damage to Philadelphia’s cause. It took pressure off of Brees, who threw a couple of bad interceptions. It helped create manageable third downs, of which the Saints converted seven of 13. And at the end, it allowed the Saints to play keep-away while the final 4:54 was ticking by.

    New Orleans’ 185 yards on the ground was the third-highest surrendered by the Birds this season—most by an offense with a pocket passer.

'We Can All Count'

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    The last time the Eagles made the playoffs, David Akers missed two field goals in a 21-16 loss to the eventual world champion Green Bay Packers in 2010. When pressed about it by reporters immediately following the game, then-head coach Andy Reid infamously threw his kicker of 12 seasons under the bus.

    “We can all count. Those points would’ve helped.” It was the last time Akers would ever suit up for Philadelphia.

    Chip Kelly refused to speculate on Alex Henery’s future, but you have to think the Eagles will at least bring in competition during the offseason. Henery’s ugly miss from 48 yards ultimately proved to be the difference in the 26-24 loss, capping off yet another disappointing campaign for the 2011 fourth-round pick.

    Meanwhile, Saints kicker Shayne Graham was signed off the street no more than a few weeks ago, and he managed to go four-for-four with a long of 46—and the game-winner.

    There were reports freezing temperatures would reduce Henery’s range to 50 yards and under, but it’s not like he can be trusted to kick many from that distance anyway. He’s only attempted two from downtown all season, five in his entire three-year career.

    The 26-year-old finished the regular season tied 23rd in field-goal percentage (82.1), and he didn’t exactly make up for it by booming kickoffs out of the end zone either.

    Henery wasn’t solely responsible for the Eagles’ loss. That being said, we can all…well, you know.

Nick Foles Blinks

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    It’s been a magical season for Nick Foles, but sooner or later, his penchant for holding on to the football was going to cost the Eagles. The 24-year-old’s indecisiveness led to two huge, totally avoidable sacks that killed drives.

    The first and most egregious was in the second quarter. New Orleans sent a three-man rush after Foles, who had an eternity to throw the football somewhere, anywhere. Instead, he waited and waited, then waited some more until Cameron Jordan finally arrived for a loss of 11. Two plays later, Alex Henery missed a 48-yard field goal.

    Foles opened the second half with two more massive losses—13 yards on intentional grounding, followed by an eight-yard sack shared by defensive ends Jordan and Akiem Hicks. The quick three-and-out resulted in great field position for the Saints, which they converted into a touchdown.

    Sometimes, Foles extends a play for the better, like on his 10-yard touchdown to Riley Cooper. The wide receiver was able to signal his quarterback for the ball, and he made a great throw.

    The other side is the sacks and occasional turnover. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only), only Seattle QB Russell Wilson held on to the ball longer in 2013.

    It’s hard to say Foles performed anything less than well in the loss. The second-year quarterback completed 23 of 33 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns with zero giveaways in his first career postseason action. Then again, there were certainly a few plays he’d like to have back.

Keenan Lewis Shuts Down DeSean Jackson

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    Granted, some of Nick Foles’ struggles can be traced directly back to his star wide receiver’s inability to get free. Thanks to Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, DeSean Jackson was completely invisible throughout much of the contest.

    In fact, it took until Lewis had to leave the game with a concussion in the third quarter until Jackson even caught a pass. Coming off a career year in which he was voted second alternate to the Pro Bowl, Jackson finished with three receptions for 53 yards on six targets.

    Signed away from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason, Lewis emerged as the top cover in New Orleans’ No. 2 pass defense this season. Still, who would’ve thought he would erase one of the NFL’s most explosive weapons?

    For the record, it wasn’t Riley Cooper’s best evening either. The impending free agent led the Birds with six receptions, 68 yards and a touchdown, but that’s not what people will remember.

    Cooper will never drop an easier pass than the one Foles delivered on a crossing route in the third quarter, in stride and with room to run. Instead, it fell out of the receiver’s hands for a harmless incomplete, a lapse in concentration that forced Philly to punt.

Cary Williams Comes Out, Drew Brees Roc-Ks Carmichael

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    Here’s another example of how the positive or negative outcome of one play can make all the difference in a drive—and the final score.

    The Eagles had the Saints offense backed up in 3rd-and-12 following a holding penalty, but Cary Williams had to come out for a snap after getting dinged on the previous play. In came reserve cornerback Roc Carmichael in a situation where the defense should be able to get off the field.

    Spoiler alert: The defense does not get off the field.

    What do savvy Drew Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton do? They immediately target the guy coming off the bench. Kenny Stills ran a comeback route to the sticks, Carmichael gave the rookie wide receiver too much of a cushion, and Brees floated a perfect strike to convert the long third down. Five plays later, New Orleans was in the end zone.

    Brees made his share of mistakes, tossing a pair of first-half interceptions. The Super Bowl XLIV MVP eventually settled in though, completing 20 of 30 passes for 250 yards and a score—that was with his All-Pro tight end limited to three catches for 44 yards. The way New Orleans was able to run the football, it was enough.

Eagles Defense Can’t Get off the Field

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    Unfortunately, the Philadelphia defense’s inability to get off the field followed the Eagles around the whole game. A strong ground attack coupled with Drew Brees’ ability to dink and dunk his way down the field provided New Orleans with favorable down-and-distance most of the night.

    The Saints converted seven of 13 third downs, keeping drives allowed and wearing out the defense in the process.

    Granted, all but New Orleans’ conversion on 3rd-and-12 were within four yards of the sticks or closer. Still, the Eagles allowed all five third-down plays of three yards or less to result in a third down.

    Sooner or later, the defense needs to come up with a clutch stop.

    It should probably come as no surprise third downs were part of the Philly’s undoing. The Birds D conceded a 40 percent conversion rate on the season, good for 24th in the NFL.

Terron Armstead Keeps Drew Brees Clean

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    The Eagles and Saints might’ve matched up fairly closely on paper, but there was a one-on-one matchup the Philly D was hoping to exploit. 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead was making his third career start at left tackle since taking over for veteran Charles Brown. The rookie would be working primarily against Trent Cole.

    Armstead did an admirable job of protecting Drew Brees’ blindside though. Both Trent Cole and understudy Brandon Graham registered a sack against the rookie, but here’s the thing: The two plays combined resulted in a loss of one yard.

    Armstead was also called for a holding penalty.

    Cole came on strong at the end of the season, registering eight sacks over the final eight games. He did generate some pressure on Brees, forcing the quarterback to move his feet to elude the pass rush. However, the outside linebacker’s impact seemed to diminish as the game wore on.

    Maybe Father Time is starting to take its toll on Cole, 31. Brees was also able to defeat the pass rush at times with quick, short passes.

    Whatever the case, neither Cole nor Graham was really able to wreak havoc in the backfield consistently. Not surprisingly, Brees grew comfortable in the pocket, and the mistakes and errant passes came fewer and farther between.

LeSean McCoy Was Good, Not Great

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    LeSean McCoy generated a bit of Most Valuable Player buzz with his stellar campaign. Shady pulled down an NFL rushing championship in his fifth season, setting a franchise record with 1,607 yards in the process, plus led the league in yards from scrimmage. Just think, he’ll only be 26 this year.

    That said, McCoy did not give an MVP-worthy performance against the Saints on Saturday night. New Orleans finished the season ranked 19th against the run, but the numbers suggest the Saints are worse than that. Only three teams allowed a higher yards per carry than 4.6

    They don’t play the game in stat sheets though. McCoy saw the ball plenty, carrying 21 times despite being down by two possessions at one point late in the game. The production simply wasn’t there, as No. 25 only managed 77 yards for a 3.7 average. He was also held to 15 yards on four receptions.

    McCoy did find break the plain once, but by and large, the explosive plays weren’t there. He had a long gain of just 11 yards.

    To be honest, we can’t pin that all on Shady. It didn’t look like the offensive line—widely considered the best in the NFL this season—opened many holes. Perhaps Chip Kelly could’ve called more runs designed to go north-south rather than testing the edges so much.

    Whatever the case, McCoy simply didn’t have it in this one, and the Birds’ season is over. With the loss, their record fell to 9-2 on the year when the All-Pro back touches the ball at least 24 times.

Give the Other Guys Credit

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    During the week leading up to the game, I was surprised to hear remarks such as, “New Orleans scares me the least of any NFC team in the playoffs,” on talk radio, as the Saints finished the season 11-5, with one of the most prolific quarterbacks of all time, a fleet of Pro Bowl weapons and a top-five defense.

    I’m sure most fans realized the challenges Drew Brees and Co. presented, and while the method that helped them achieve victory was something of a surprise—a heavy reliance on the running game—you’ve got to give them credit.

    A lot of players and coaches on the New Orleans sideline have Super Bowl rings. You can’t discount a quarterback, head coach or team that’s already won at the highest level.

    The Saints did what they had to do to sneak out of South Philly with a win on Wild Card Weekend, and they deserve to advance to the divisional round.

    There were no easy opponents in the NFC this year. Only Green Bay posted a worse record than the Eagles, and they were without their starting quarterback for half the season. The Saints were a worthy opponent and the better team on Saturday night.

Ahead of Schedule

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    It’s disappointing it had to end this early, but the Eagles gave their fans one memorable season. Chip Kelly proved he belongs as a head coach in the NFL. Nick Foles emerged as the quarterback of the future, perhaps more. A year-long home losing streak was put to rest. A six-game winning streak propelled the team to an NFC East championship.

    Remember, Philadelphia’s record was 3-5 at one point this season. Nobody quit. Nobody cried in the media.

    The Eagles stuck together, like a team—and in a season where many fans and analysts predicted they would win six games at best, maybe eight if they got lucky.

    This was supposed to be a rebuilding year while Kelly installed his program and evaluated what was left over from the Andy Reid era. Instead, they won 10 games and look poised to dominate the division for years to come.

    Now, imagine where this team is going to be next season after another draft and after the addition of a few key free agents. Honestly, we should just be happy this team, with holes in the secondary and after the injury to Jeremy Maclin in training camp, could even reach the playoffs.

    Next year is Super Bowl or bust. Once you get over the disappointment of a first-round playoff exit, just remember where this team came from—4-12 last season under Reid—and the direction it appears to be heading.