NEW ORLEANS – This is a tough spot. Everybody understands that. For the first time in seasons, the Eagles are playing a team that has performed at a significantly higher level throughout the year. The Eagles are on the road, in hostile territory, against an 8-1 team.
Is this when the Eagles come out and play an A-plus kind of game?
"We just have to play the way we know we can play," tight end Zach Ertz said. "We know they're a good team. It's about us, not them. We have to play clean football and we have to play at our highest level. That's the goal every week."
At 4-5, well, we know where the Eagles stand. They're chasing Washington in the NFC East and no matter what happens against the Saints on Sunday afternoon, the Eagles are still going to be chasing the Redskins and the path to the playoffs is likely to come down to the four remaining NFC East games on the schedule.
Playing New Orleans gives the Eagles a measuring stick to see how they stack up against one of the best teams in the NFL. New Orleans has the most prolific offense in the high-scoring NFL and is led by a quarterback who has been nearly error-free this season. Drew Brees has 21 touchdown passes and one interception. The Saints have an elite wide receiver in Michael Thomas and two top-shelf running backs in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Tight end Ben Watson is having a big-play season.
The task is considerable. The warning signs have been discussed all week – not including the announcement, as the team landed on Saturday, that drinking tap water in New Orleans was discouraged as the city issued a drinking water advisory warning – and now we're going to find out how capable the Eagles are of playing their best game of the season by far to have a chance to beat the Saints.
What to look for against New Orleans? Here are some things to watch:
- Emotion and urgency. The Eagles didn't show much of either in Sunday night's loss against Dallas. A lethargic first half and a collapse in the fourth quarter contributed to a critical NFC East loss. Can the Eagles show some spit and vinegar to rise up and show the NFL that they are still a team to be reckoned with?
- Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was not at all pleased with the tackling against Dallas and the challenge is far greater here. The Eagles not only need to wrap up; they need to rally to the football. They need to be aggressive defensively against Brees and mix up their looks, yes, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to straight-up man-to-man football. The Eagles aren't going to fool Brees. And they're not going to overpower the Saints individually. Whatever Schwartz dials up, and it's likely we'll see well-timed blitzes mixed in to try to take Brees out of his comfort zone, the Eagles have to execute at a very high level. Cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox and Co. are going to be in a lot of tough spots. They've got to challenge the Saints. For the first time this season, we're going to see Jones on the outside, his natural spot.
- Offensively, the Eagles are going to have some opportunities to make plays. New Orleans has an excellent pass rusher in Cameron Jordan, good, attacking linebackers, and a lot of talent in the secondary. But the Saints have also given up yards and points and big plays all season. How do the Eagles take advantage of some of the personnel packages they put together? Where does wide receiver Golden Tate fit into the equation? How can the passing game involve both Ertz and Dallas Goedert at tight end? Does Nelson Agholor have a chance for more "shot" plays in the passing game down the field?
- Then there's head coach Doug Pederson, who already has an aggressive mentality. How much more does he go after New Orleans? Three points in the red zone won't cut it. The Eagles are going to need touchdowns, not field goals. Does Pederson play this game like he's in the mindset of being in a shootout?
- Precision on special teams is a must. The Eagles need to win field position. It's as simple as that. Penalties on returns and poor kicks and missed tackles in coverage are killers.
Too many times this season the Eagles have failed to seize momentum and sustain it. And it's come back time and time again to haunt them. So, they enter this game 4-5 and at a crossroads in this season that hasn't gone the way anybody expected.
Do they rise up and play their best game of the season? If there was ever a need, it's right here and now against a complete Saints team. Nobody said this was an easy spot for the Eagles and it certainly is not going to be easy. As much as we've learned about the inconsistencies of this team through nine games, No. 10 is going to offer a different kind of peek into the urgent nature of the Eagles. It's a shock-the-world moment. Are the Eagles ready for the challenge?