The Philadelphia Eagles will be playing the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round of the 2019 NFL playoffs schedule on Sunday. Here are some initial thoughts on the matchup.
HOW THE SAINTS GOT HERE
The Saints began the 2018 season with a shootout loss at home to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Seriously. New Orleans bounced back with a 10-game winning streak in which their average margin of victory was 16.1 points. The Saints’ red hot offense then went cold against the Cowboys’ defense in a Week 13 loss to Dallas. New Orleans found themselves down 11 points to the Buccaneers in Week 14 before bouncing back in the second half. Then the Saints barely slipped by a bad Panthers team in Week 15 with a three-point win. In Week 16, the Steelers were driving to potentially beat the Saints (or at least send the game to overtime) in the Superdome before a Pittsburgh fumble ended the game. Having the No. 1 seed locked up, the Saints rested most of their starters in Week 17. Their players received more rest with not having to play on Wild Card weekend.
- The Saints’ 31.1 offensive points per game ranked second most in the regular season. They “only” ranked seventh best in terms of yards per play.
- Football Outsiders has the Saints ranked fourth overall in offensive DVOA. Weighted DVOA, which accounts for recent performance, has the Saints ranked a little lower at seventh overall. The Saints are third in passing DVOA and eighth in rushing DVOA.
- The Saints’ 16 giveaways rank tied for third fewest in the league. Seven of those were interceptions, which ranks tied for second fewest. They’ve done a great job of protecting the ball.
- Sean Payton is still one of the most creative offensive minds in the league. The Saints use a lot of different looks on offense, as the Eagles saw in Week 11.
- Drew Brees turns 40 next week but he’s still going strong. He finished the regular season completing 74.4% of his passes for 3,992 yards (8.2 average), 32 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a career-best (!) 115.7 passer rating. He also ran for four touchdowns. He’s still crazy good.
- The bad news for the Eagles is Brees has been so dominant playing at home. He’s completed 76.27 % of his passes for 21 touchdowns and one interception for a 133.3 passer rating at the Superdome this season.
- The good news for the Eagles is Brees didn’t play too well in December. He only had two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 88.2 passer rating in his final three starts.
- The Saints averaged 20.5 points per game in their last four meaningful starts (so, not including Week 17). By comparison, the Eagles have 28.5 points per game in their last four.
- The Eagles struggled to contain dangerous running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram back in Week 11. Ingram had 16 carries for 103 yards (6.4 average) and two touchdowns. Kamara had 13 carries for 71 yards in addition to one reception for a 37-yard touchdown. The Eagles’ run defense has stabilized since then, however, only allowing 57.5 rush yards per game in their last four matchups. Philly specifically did a good job of containing Tarik Cohen against Chicago. It’ll be up to combination of Malcolm Jenkins, Nigel Bradham, and Cre’Von LeBlanc to help keep Kamara in check.
- Tre’Quan Smith went off for 10 receptions, 157 yards, and one touchdown the last time these two teams played. Michael Thomas only had four receptions but they went for 92 yards and one touchdown. An Eagles secondary that’s played relatively well lately will be tested by these guys. The Saints will certainly look to test Avonte Maddox with double moves given how the Bears had success with that last Sunday.
- The Saints’ offensive line allowed the second fewest sacks this year with just 20 over 16 games. It’s a talented unit with Terron Armstead (who missed the Week 11 game) at left tackle, Andrus Peat at left guard, Max Unger at center, Larry Warford at right guard, and Ryan Ramczyk at right tackle. It also helps that Brees gets the ball out in an average of 2.43 seconds, which ranks fifth quickest in the league. The potential bad news for the Saints is the line is banged up. The Saints’ injury report is worth watching closely this week.
- The Saints love to get third string quarterback Taysom Hill involved in the offense. They’ll use him to throw, run, catch, block ... you name it. It’s honestly a gift for the Eagles if the Saints use Hill to pass instead of Brees at some point. I’m waiting for the Hill package to finally come back to bite Payton in a big moment. Maybe it happens on Sunday.
- The Saints’ defense ranks 11th overall in defensive DVOA. Their vulnerability is their pass defense, which ranks 22nd. Their run defense ranks third.
- The Saints’ 5.7 opponent yards per play ranks tied for 16th. Their 21.6 offensive points per game allowed ranks 17th.
- The Saints rank 13th in takeaways with 24. 12 of those have been interceptions, which ranks 18th. Their 12 fumble takeaways ranked tied for fourth. Fumble recoveries are more lucky than interceptions so maybe the Saints are due for some less fortune fumble luck.
- The Saints’ defense ranks 21st in big play rate. The Eagles should have some opportunities be aggressive and take shots down the field.
- Second-team All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the Saints in sacks with 12. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is second with eight and rookie first-round pick Marcus Davenport is third with 7.5. The Eagles have done a great job of erasing Khalil Mack, Ryan Kerrigan, and J.J. Watt in recent weeks. They’ll need another big performance from the offensive line in New Orleans.
- The Saints’ linebacker trio of Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein is a solid group. Davis has been able to make an impact as a pass rusher with five sacks this season. He had two tackles for loss against the Eagles in Week 11.
- As the Eagles should know from having played the Giants, Eli Apple is a weak point in the Saints’ secondary. The Eagles should look to attack him.
- NFL quarterbacks have a 144.3 passer rating when targeting former Eagles safety Kurt Coleman this season. There’s another weak point to attack.
SAINTS SPECIAL TEAMS
- The Saints rank 9th in special teams DVOA (13th weighted).
- Saints kicker Wil Lutz has only missed two field goals all season. One was in the 40-49 range and the other was from 50+. He also only missed one of his 53 extra point attempts.
- The Saints rank tied with the Eagles for first place in net punting average (45.0). Thomas Morstead’s punts are being returned for an average of five yards, which ranks tied for second fewest.
- The Saints’ kick return average ranks 10th best. Their punt return average is tied for 23rd best.
- Interesting note from Rotoworld’s Renee Miller: “The Saints are 0-4 against the spread in their last four playoff games as a favorite … Eagles are 5-0 against the spread as underdogs in January.”
- The Saints are 6-0 in their last six playoff home games. New Orleans hasn’t lost a playoff home game since 1993, when Rich Kotite’s Eagles (!) beat them 36 to 20.
- Carl Cheffers is the head referee for Sunday’s game. The Eagles are 5-7 in 12 games officiated by him, including their loss to the Saints in Week 11. The Saints are 11-1 in 12 games officiated by Cheffers.
- This would be a good game for the Eagles to get extra aggressive. Bust out a trick play or two. Go for a surprise onside kick at some point. The Eagles’ last game against the Saints should’ve taught them that they can’t play it safe.
- Weather won’t be a factor since the Saints play in a dome. Foles’ career dome splits aren’t fantastic but it’s preferable to him having to play in the freezing cold since he’s struggled at times in that environment.
- The revenge factor could be working in the Eagles’ favor.
The odds are stacked against the Eagles in this one. The Saints are a very, very good team. They have an elite quarterback, one of the best head coaches in the league, and a competitive defense. Plus home field advantage to boot.
But does any of that really matter? I keep coming back to: how can you possibly bet against this Eagles team at this point? You have to expect the reigning Super Bowl champions will at least make it a game, unlike last time.