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Saturday, January 4, 2014

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: Playoff Football is Back!

by: Ryan Waldis
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Photo Courtesy: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were predicted to win anywhere from six to eight games. Nick Foles wasn't supposed to be one of the best QB's in the league. The defense wasn't supposed to let up 21 points or less in eight straight games. None of that matters anymore. The Eagles started from the bottom, and now they're here (excuse the terrible song pun). After finishing in last place in the NFC East with a 4-12 record last season, the Eagles won the division this season with a 10-6 record. Winning seven of their last eight games, the Eagles have generated a lot of attention, even being picked by some to make a deep playoff run. Regardless, the Eagles know what the current situation is. From here on out, they're essentially playing a one game season. Win, and you advance; lose, and you're done. This is the third straight week the Eagles will play in front of a national audience and, although the anticipation is a killer, every Eagles fan wouldn't have it any other way.

The Last Time They Met: November 5th, 2012- Saints 28, Eagles 13

One of the many times Vick
was sacked.
Photo Courtesy: Associated Press
The Eagles came into to this Monday Night football game at 3-4. They weren't falling behind in the division, but they desperately needed a win to keep pace. That win never came. Playing in front of a packed crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome proved to be to much, as the Eagles lost by 15 points, falling to 3-5 in the process. The Eagles started off slow, and a 99-yard interception return by Patrick Robinson set the tone for the night.

Michael Vick had a rough night, completing 22 of his 41 passes for 272 yards, one touchdown and that costly interception. He was also on his back for most of the night, getting sacked seven times while getting knocked down a lot more. DeSean Jackson was the team's leading receiver, hauling in three passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. LeSean McCoy had a nice night, rushing for 119 yards on 19 carries.

Drew Brees picked apart the Eagles makeshift secondary, completing 21 of his 27 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas combined for 136 yards and a touchdown. Jimmy Graham was Brees' favorite target, hauling in eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.

Eagles Offense vs. Saints Defense

Foles, McCoy, and Cooper were just a few of the key contributors
on offense for the Eagles.
Photo Courtesy: CSN Philly
The Eagles finished the regular season ranked ninth in passing (256.9 yards per game) and first in rushing (160.4 yards per game). That's exactly what fans imagined when they heard the news that Chip Kelly was hired to be the new head coach of the Eagles. LeSean McCoy had MVP-type numbers (314 carries, 1,607 yards, nine touchdowns) and, if it wasn't for Peyton Manning, he'd definitely have a shot to win the award. He's a top-three RB and a case could be made that he's the best in the NFL. McCoy has been the best player on the offensive side of the ball for the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the other players haven't had excellent seasons as well. Nick Foles went from being a backup QB to perhaps being the franchise QB the Eagles have been looking for since the end of the 2009 season. He's not in the elite group of QB's yet, but his performance this season (203 completions on 317 attempts, 2,891 yards, 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions) has put him the "young, up-and-coming" group, right alongside Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, etc. DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper became a formidable WR duo. Jackson finished the season with 82 receptions, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns; Cooper with 47 receptions, 835 yards, and eight touchdowns. TE's Brent Celek and Zach Ertz combined for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns.

And, finally, the offensive line became one of the best in the league, so much so that Foles bought an Xbox One for every one of his linemen. Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, and Lane Johnson may not have all gotten Pro Bowl bids (Peters did), but they all performed like Pro Bowlers. Talent at the skill positions is important (obviously), but perhaps not as important as it is at the tackle, guard and center positions.

Galette (left) and Jordan anchor a revamped Saints defense.
Photo Courtesy:
The Saints defense was horrific last season, but the addition of Rob Ryan as the defensive coordinator turned the Saints defense around drastically. The Saints finished the regular season ranked second in pass defense (194.1 yards per game) and 19th in rush defense (111.6 yards per game). The Saints defense doesn't have as many well-known names as their offense does, but that doesn't take away from the talent they have. RILB Curtis Lofton leads the team in tackles with 125; he also finished with two sacks. LILB David Hawthorne finished second on the team with 91 tackles to go along with three sacks. The Saints most dangerous linebacker, however, may very well be Junior Galette. He only finished with 40 tackles, but finished second on the team in sacks with 12.

The Saints secondary consists of Corey White, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, and Keenan Lewis. They aren't exactly household names (at least outside of New Orleans), but they form one of the best secondaries in the league. Lewis leads the team with four interceptions, followed by Jenkins with two and Harper with one. Kenny Vacarro was in discussions for Defensive Rookie of the Year until his injury late in the season sidelined him for the rest of the year.

The Saints defensive line (as with the rest of their defense) is very dangerous. It is anchored by RE Cameron Jordan, who was the team leader with 12.5 sacks. Akeem Hicks, the LE, finished with 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks, while Brodrick Bunkley is the starter at the NT position. The Eagles o-line is good, but this is easily one of their toughest challenges yet.

Saints Offense vs Eagles Defense

Brees and Graham headline one of the most dangerous
offenses in the league.
Photo Courtesy:
In case you didn't know, the Saints offense is one of the most dangerous ones in the league. Drew Brees headlines the Saints high-octane attack. A Saint since 2006, Brees just completed another outstanding season in which he completed 446 of his 650 passes for 5,162 yards, 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. He has a dangerous corps of receivers to dump the ball off to. The biggest name is TE Jimmy Graham. Graham, who is arguably the best TE in the league, finished the season with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Brees also has WR's Marques Colston (75, 943, five) and Kenny Stills (32, 641, five) as well as RB Darren Sproles (71, 604, two). Aside from the Broncos, the Saints definitely have the most dangerous group of receivers in the league.

The Saints use a plethora (well, maybe not a plethora) of running backs when it comes to running the ball. Pierre Thomas leads the team with 549 yards and two touchdowns on 147 carries, but he's injured. So, they'll have to rely on Mark Ingram (386 yards, one touchdown, 78 attempts), Khiry Robinson (224, one, 54) and Sproles (220, two, 53). Not a bad group of RB's, especially if they all get clicking early.

The Saints have a decent offensive line, but they've struggled over the best few weeks. From left to right, their o-line consists of Charles Brown, Ben Grubbs, Brian De La Puente, Jahri Evans, and Zach Streif. If the Eagles can create consistent pressure early (something they weren't able to do against the Cowboys last week), the offensive line will be in for a long night, and may eventually fold under the pressure.

The Eagles defense is nothing like it was during the month of September, but they can still be exploited. They may very well have the worst third-and-long defense in the history of the NFL (yes, that's an exaggeration). Their secondary is prone to mistakes at times (it doesn't happen very often anymore, but it happens). Still, they've established an identity (bend, a lot, but don't break), and that's really all you can ask for at this point.

The defensive line of Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, and Fletcher Cox have become one of the most promising lines in the league. Thornton went from just another defensive end to one of the better ones in the league in just 17 weeks, while Cox has become one of the most promising young players in the league in just two years. Even Logan, the rookie out of LSU, has become a key contributor since the trade of Issac Sopoaga who, if you're wondering, has done nothing with the Patriots. They didn't accumulate a lot of sacks over the course of the season, but the outstanding LB corps sure did.

Before the season, many wondered whether the combination of Trent Cole, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, and Connor Barwin would work in a 3-4 defensive scheme. It's safe to say that it did. Ryans and Kendricks finished first and second on the team in tackles with 127 and 106 respectively, and each accumulated four sacks. Cole led the team with eight sacks while Barwin finished with five, an interception, and a crucial swat late in the Cowboys game last week. Aside from Cole, who is in his early 30s, the rest of the LB corps are in their primes, and will anchor the defense for years to come.

Boykin has become one of the better CB's in the league.
Photo Courtesy:
The secondary has improved drastically from the first month of the season, but they are still prone to letting up the big play. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have done well on the outside, and while they're not the long-term answer at the CB position, they've performed well. Nate Allen has finally showed the talent and promise the Eagles expected out of him when they drafted him in 2010. Patrick Chung is the weakest member of the secondary, but fans won't have to worry about him when Earl Wolff takes back his starting spot eventually. The best member of the secondary though has been second-year man Brandon Boykin. He's only played about half of the time when the Eagles are on defense, but he managed to finish second in the league with six interceptions. The coaching staff feels that he'll perform his best as a nickel CB, but he'll probably get some looks on the outside next summer.

Special Teams Battle

Shayne Graham, who replaced Garrett Hartley after he was released several weeks ago, made both of his field goal attempts, with a long of 40. 25 of Thomas Morstead's 61 punts have been downed inside the 20; his longest punt of the season was 61 yards. Darren Sproles is the main returner, but Travaris Cadet also gets some time returning kicks.

Alex Henery made 23 of his 28 field goal attempts, with a long of 51. 33 of Donnie Jones' 82 punts were downed inside the 20; his longest punt of the season was 70 yards. Damaris Johnson is the main kick returner while DeSean Jackson is the main punt returner; Boykin and Brad Smith also get some returning kicks.

PREDICTION: Eagles 27, Saints 23

I don't believe any of my predictions over the past several weeks have been anywhere close to accurate. I'm hoping this one is. The game will be close, and it might even come down to the last possession. Still, I believe that the Eagles defense will hold Drew Brees and Co. in check. I also see Foles passing for around 230 yards and a touchdown and McCoy rushing for around 120 and two touchdowns. Jimmy Graham will finish with nine receptions and about 100 yards and a touchdown, but when it all comes down to it, Graham's performance won't matter.

The Eagles will win their first playoff game since 2008, and will go on to Charlotte to play the Panthers next Sunday.


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