The Eagles reached the postseason nine times in 11 seasons from 2000-10. It was easy to take making the playoffs for granted. The Eagles were like a machine. The only questions were whether the team would be division champs or a Wild Card team and what the seed would be. That changed during 2011 and 2012. The Eagles went 12-20. The playoffs were a distant dream.
I don't think the pressure of the moment will be too much for the Eagles. This team might be young, but they have shown great maturity all year. They didn't panic at 1-3 or even at 3-5. They responded to the poor showing in Minnesota by blowing the doors off the Bears. Then the Eagles went down to Dallas and beat the Cowboys in JerryWorld.
Kelly has this team focused and playing well. They were 7-1 in the second half of the season. The Eagles averaged more than 33 points a game in that stretch. The defense still gave up more yards than you'd like, but held teams to 21 points per game.
Foles and the Eagles offense will match up tonight against the number four defense in the NFL. This won't be easy. The Saints’ weakness is run defense, which just happens to be the Eagles’ strength. Rob Ryan, the Saints defensive coordinator, knows this and will have a plan in place. My guess is that he will attack the line of scrimmage aggressively and try to limit
Ryan will likely challenge Foles to beat him. The Saints will play lots of tight man coverage and load the box. They will dare the Eagles to throw the ball on them. You can bet Kelly will have a couple of plans for this. First, he'll have some wrinkles for running the ball, even against a stacked box. This could be quick hitters up the middle or outside runs. Kelly also won't be afraid to come out throwing the ball. He trusts Foles and the receivers. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Foles go deep in the first couple of offensive plays. That would be a sign to the Saints that the Eagles are willing to attack.
One of New Orleans’ most valuable defenders is safety Kenny Vaccaro. Unfortunately, he was injured in the loss to Carolina and is out for the year. His replacement is veteran Roman Harper, who struggles in coverage. You can bet that Kelly will attack Harper. Last week, Kelly attacked Dallas safety Jeff Heath until the coaches benched him. Kelly could use the tight ends to go after Harper. Rookie
The Saints can get after the quarterback. They had 49 sacks this year. You can argue that the real key to this game is how the Eagles’ offensive line plays. They had an inconsistent game in Dallas last week. The Saints have more talent on the defensive line so the Eagles need to take a big step forward to control the line of scrimmage and win this game. End Cameron Jordan led the Saints with 12.5 sacks and he's also a solid run defender. Linebacker Junior Gallette had 12 sacks, but is a smaller speed-rusher type. The Eagles must keep them under control if they want to win. If the Saints do fly upfield and also play tight man coverage, this could be a game where Foles could run for a couple of key first downs.
The biggest question for me is still what happens with the run game. The Saints lost five games this year. They gave up 141, 198, 127, 144 and 81 yards on the ground in those games. I just can't see Ryan keeping two safeties back and letting the Eagles run the ball. The counter to that is that Ryan could fear big pass plays more than the run game. That's why I could see Kelly trying to throw early. It could back the Saints off the line of scrimmage and open up the run game. Wide receiver
I think the Eagles will score points. The offense has faced all kinds of defenses in the last eight games and they've found a way to move the ball on all of them. Kelly is a great playcaller and Foles is a hot quarterback. That formula works in the regular season and the postseason.
The Eagles defense has a huge challenge. You don't stop Drew Brees. You hope to slow him down and maybe make a key play or two. The first thing you'd like to do is come up with takeaways. The Eagles have averaged more than two takeaways a game over the second half of the season. They had three last week and those were crucial to the win. The Saints protect the ball pretty well. They tied with the Eagles for the fourth fewest turnovers in the league - 19. Getting the ball from Brees and his guys isn't easy.
The next order of business is stopping them by forcing punts. The Saints are third in the NFL in third-down conversions, which tells you they can sustain drives. Even slowing the Saints down is pretty hard. New Orleans is only 12th in red zone offense so they have had some issues with scoring touchdowns.
They have two players who are really tough to deal with. Jimmy Graham is more of an offensive weapon than a tight end. He can line up anywhere and is a tremendous playmaker. Darren Sproles is a running back, but is another guy that can beat you in multiple ways. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that the primary focus will be dealing with Graham. The question is how to do that.
I'm really curious to see how Davis handles Graham. He could put a cornerback on him, like the Patriots did when they shut Graham down. Davis could have
The good news is that Davis has already had to design schemes to cover Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and the Bears wide receiver duo. All of these guys were big, athletic pass catchers. None were "tight ends," but that phrase really is limiting. Watch Graham play. It is nothing like
Last week, the Eagles focused on stopping Bryant and they did keep him under control. Jason Witten caught 12 passes and was a major problem. If you go back to the first game, the Eagles focused more on Witten and limited him to four catches. The Eagles can do a good job at limiting one offensive weapon.
The bad news is that Graham is just one piece of the puzzle. Davis also said that the Saints screen game would be a point of emphasis. This would mainly be throws to Sproles. He caught 71 passes this year and is a key weapon out of the backfield. Sproles is one of those guys who can turn any catch or run into a big play. He is very elusive and has excellent speed. If he gets one-on-one with a linebacker in space, you could be in trouble. Davis is emphasizing the need for defensive linemen to pursue on screens. It helps to have multiple defenders chasing Sproles.
Graham and Sproles are the big names, but Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and Mark Ingram are also weapons. The Eagles defense will need to play a complete game. Drew Brees is a special quarterback because he can get the ball to all of these players. He knows where everyone is, who should be open and where the ball needs to go.
It is imperative that the Eagles get some pressure on Brees. You aren't going to sack him a ton, but you can make him uncomfortable in the pocket. The key with Brees is getting pressure in his face. That means interior pressure. You want
The guys over the middle of the field will need to do a good job in coverage and tackling.
The Eagles defense has made a lot of timely plays this year that have helped them win. They give up their share of yards, but they come through in clutch situations. This game will be a huge test. Brees doesn't make many mistakes. If he is off-target with a throw, the Eagles must get to the ball and make him pay.
Neither team is great on special teams. The Eagles have been hot recently. Maybe that will prove to be a key difference. Sproles hasn't put up big numbers as a returner this season, but he is always capable of making a big play.
The angle that's gotten a ton of play this week is how the Saints will play in the cold and on the road. That stuff is a factor, but you can't count on it to make a significant impact. The key to this game is how the Eagles execute. They have the three H's going for them - hot, healthy and playing at home. The Saints are missing key players in Vaccaro and Thomas. They're on the road. I think LeSean McCoy is the difference. He's having a special season and is a guy you can feed the ball as a runner or receiver. This won't be an easy game, but I like the Eagles chances. Let's keep this great season going.