Saints vs Eagles

Saints vs Eagles: Saints coach Sean Payton dismisses the premise that the Eagles could derive extra motivation from the widespread perception that New Orleans ran up the score on them when they met in November.

“My question would be: We’re all playing hard in these divisional playoff games, right?” Payton began, referring to Sunday’s rematch in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. “Are you going to play harder” because of a perceived slight?

Still, Payton expects a more competitive affair than the Saints’ 48-7 blowout of the Eagles on Nov. 18, which gave Philadelphia the dubious distinction of becoming the first reigning Super Bowl champion to lose by that wide a margin in the following regular season.

The Eagles (10-7) appeared to be sinking fast when their loss in New Orleans dropped them to 4-6. But they’ve rallied to win six of seven since, including a road victory against the Los Angeles Rams that helped New Orleans (13-3) capture the conference’s top seed.

“They’ve kind of been in a playoff role really going back to those games, needing to win to get in,” Payton noted. “So it’s impressive.”

Now the Eagles, who opened as 10-point underdogs this week, can ruin the Saints’ Super Bowl dreams with a second straight road upset.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said. “We’re a completely different team than we were seven weeks ago. I don’t think the team that showed up on that Sunday is even remotely close to the team that we are right now.”

Such a lopsided loss in New Orleans could have resulted in finger-pointing and a fractured locker room, Ertz suggested. Instead, Ertz said, “It was a rallying point for our season.”

The Eagles survived last week’s wild-card round with a 16-15 victory in which quarterback Nick Foles – who’s won four straight starts since taking over for injured starter Carson Wentz – engineered a late scoring drive capped by a fourth-down touchdown pass. And that only stood up after Chicago kicker Cody Parkey’s “double-doink” miss on a field-goal attempt that hit both the upright and crossbar in the final seconds.

Philadelphia likely will need more offense in the Superdome, where the Saints averaged 37 points in Drew Brees’ seven home starts before the record-setting QB got a rest day during the club’s anti-climactic regular-season finale.

“I assume they’ll come in as motivated as ever. Just like we’re going to come in as motivated as ever,” Brees said. “Just two really good teams about to play in a playoff game.”

Some other story lines surrounding the third Eagles-Saints playoff clash since Payton and Brees joined forces in New Orleans in 2006.

STARTING FAST

The Eagles have won 19 straight games when they score in the first quarter, including 7-0 this season. They scored on a field-goal drive last week in the first quarter. It’ll be even more important to score early against the high-powered Saints. New Orleans is 5-0 when leading after one quarter, 9-0 when leading at halftime and won eight times by double-digit margins.

“We are starting the games better now over the last six, seven games,” Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “Defense is doing a really good job getting off the field early in the game. We’re able to get the lead.”

Coach Doug Pederson has deferred the kickoff to the second half whenever the Eagles have won the coin toss. Perhaps he’ll reconsider if he wins the toss this week.

RESTED SAINTS

Several prominent Saints players haven’t played in more than two weeks. Brees, who completed an NFL single-season record 74.4 percent of his passes, and dynamic running back Alvin Kamara, who had 1,592 yards and 18 TDs from scrimmage, were both healthy scratches in Week 17.

Meanwhile, two starting offensive linemen who’ve been nursing injuries – left tackle Terron Armstead (chest) and right guard Larry Warford (knee) – both sat out the regular-season finale.

“Our O-line being healthy, back to pretty much 100 percent, guys are just excited, rejuvenated and ready to play,” Kamara said.

Armstead has yet to confirm he’ll be ready, but he practiced this week and said with a smile, “I feel good about Sunday.”

DUMP-OFFS

Both teams are adept at using running backs as receivers. Kamara (81 catches, 709 yards) is New Orleans’ second-leading receiver behind Michael Thomas. Mark Ingram also has been effective on screens for New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the Saints anticipate the Eagles to look for former Saints running Darren Sproles, who, like Foles, did not play in the previous meeting.

“Darren has got incredibly good instincts on setting up some of these screens,” said Payton, who employed Sproles similarly from 2011-13. “Quite honestly, we haven’t been as good this year as we have in other years in that area, but a lot of it depends on the opponent you’re playing.”

PROVEN PROTECTION

Although All-Pro defensive linemen Aaron Donald (20½ sacks), J.J. Watt (16) and Khalil Mack (12½) combined for 49 sacks this season, they were all held without a sack against Philadelphia.

An offensive line featuring All-Pro center Jason Kelce, Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks and tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters has held up well against their best competition. Their latest challenge features Saints end Cameron Jordan (12 sacks) and tackle Sheldon Rankins (eight).

“Any time that we hear a lot about our opponent, especially the guys up front, it just seems like our guys have really embraced that opportunity and embraced the challenge,” Pederson said.

Having Peters and Johnson at the tackle spots allows Pederson to let those guys man-up against opponents’ premier pass-rushers instead of using tight ends on double teams.

“As a play caller it makes it a little easier because they are playing well, and they are controlling the line of scrimmage,” Pederson said. “The more guys you can put into a route, obviously, more opportunities for completions.”matchups
By Luke Johnson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | Posted January 13, 2019 at 06:00 AM
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Do or die season has arrived in New Orleans.

With a tremendous regular season, the New Orleans Saints put themselves in position to play at home throughout the postsesason. The first test will be a hot Philadelphia Eagles team that has won six of its last seven.

To advance, the Saints will need to disrupt the player who has been driving Philly’s late-season rush, slow down the NFL’s top receiving tight end (again) and prove that the New Orleans voodoo is stronger than the one the Eagles have been riding the last two seasons.
Saints defensive line vs. Eagles offensive line
New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) pressures Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) in the third quarter during the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, December 23, 2018. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Saints defensive line vs. Eagles offensive line

One of the hallmarks of the Chicago Bears defense this season was its ability to get after the quarterback. With Khalil Mack leading the charge as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, the Bears were one of four NFL teams to record 50 sacks this season.

In the wild card game last week against Philadelphia — at home, no less — Mack was shut out and the Bears managed to bring down quarterback Nick Foles just one time.

Protecting its quarterback was a problem for Philadelphia earlier this season, but lately it has been a strength. After allowing 35 sacks in the first 11 games, the Eagles have allowed only seven sacks in their last six games.

Considering Philadelphia’s dependence on its pass offense (its leading rusher, Josh Adams, gained 511 rushing yards this year) it would seem to be imperative to the Eagles chances to keep that play up against the Saints.

But it won’t be easy for the Eagles to go a second straight week, especially considering the run the Saints defense was on.

Since Week 10 (not counting the postseason), the Saints have recorded an NFL-leading 32 sacks, six more than the next closest team. That pass rush has played a key role in the Saints limiting opposing quarterbacks to an 87.8 rating, and opponents are scoring just 16.9 points per game in that span.

Keep it going against Philadelphia’s resurgent offensive line, and that is a massive swing in New Orleans’ favor.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz vs. Saints coverage
New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple (25) breaks up a fourth down pass to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz (86) during the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, November 18, 2018. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz vs. Saints coverage

Zach Ertz had the most prolific pass-catching season by a tight end in NFL history, hauling in 116 passes this season to top the record former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten set with 110 catches in 2012.

It wasn’t just volume either. Ertz had five 100-yard games this season, falling one shy of matching the NFL’s single-season record for a tight end (shared by Tony Gonzalez, who did it twice, and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who did it in 2016).

“He’s an extremely talented player,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. “He has great hips, he has great route savvy. He can catch it in awkward positions. There’s a real good feel that exists between he and Nick (Foles).”

The 2018 season was a smashing success for Ertz. Which makes what happened against the Saints in Week 11 so intriguing.

New Orleans clamped down on Ertz, limiting him to two catches (on three targets) for 15 yards. All of those figures were season lows.

Can the Saints do it again? It’s possible. The New Orleans defense has done many things well on the defensive side of the ball this season, and one of them has been keeping opposing tight ends in check.

Opposing tight ends caught just 55 passes against the Saints (third lowest in the NFL) for 626 yards (fourth lowest in the NFL). Only 58.5 percent of passes thrown toward tight ends were completed, the second lowest mark against any team in the NFL.
‘Dome Field Advantage’ vs. ‘Foles Magic’
New Orleans Saints fans including Larry Rolling after the game against the Carolina Panthers at the Merecedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
‘Dome Field Advantage’ vs. ‘Foles Magic’

Here are two numbers to consider: The Saints have never lost a home playoff game under Sean Payton (5-0), and the Eagles have won four consecutive playoff games with Nick Foles as the starting quarterback, one of which was Super Bowl LII, in which Foles was named the game MVP.

One of these things has to change Sunday in the Superdome.

Foles has been a remarkable story for the Eagles in this second go-round as team savior. He made the cover of “Sports Illustrated” this week after leading the Eagles to an upset road win against the Bears under the headline “Again?!”

Almost all Foles has done the last two seasons is win. Two separate injuries to Carson Wentz have made the Eagles turn to Foles for 12 starts, and the Eagles have won 10 of those games, four in the playoffs.

And it’s not like Foles has simply been carried by his teammates. His 105.1 career playoff passer rating is the best in NFL history, minimum 150 attempts.