1. Why should this rematch be any different?
Dave Spadaro: New Eagles team, much more at stake, and the fact that it’s not always so cut and dried and decisive the second time around. Look, nobody is saying the Eagles were close back on November 18. It was a lopsided loss. New Orleans dominated the day and, honestly, could have had a lot more points than 48 had they chosen to really keep the pedal down in the previous meeting. More than anything, the Eagles are playing with a lot of confidence now, they’ve finally gotten some consistency going, and they know how to win in the postseason.
I will say this: New Orleans is a terrific team, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is definitely a home-field advantage and the Eagles are going to have to play as close to an A-plus game as possible to pull off this win. Scoring early, something the Eagles just weren’t doing at the earlier point in the season but are now, is going to be critical. Let’s see what happens if the Eagles come out and score first and get a little lead on the Saints. To me, that’s the key to the whole game – scoring early and getting a jump on the Saints.
Fran Duffy: This matchup will be different because both teams, really, are at different places. As I wrote in my preview of the Saints' offense, New Orleans barreled through opponents during a nine-game stretch from Week 3 to Week 12. Over that span, they scored fewer than 30 points just once (a 24-23 win at Baltimore). From Weeks 13-16, they scored more than 30 points just once (a 31-28 win against Pittsburgh). They’re not executing as well offensively for a couple of reasons, while the Eagles are in a much better place as a team. The offense is in rhythm, the defense is much healthier, and the team is playing as one. I expect this to be a much, much different game on Sunday.
Chris McPherson: Let's start with the playoffs in general. It's tough to roll up 48 points in any game, but the Wild Card round showed that offenses can be slowed down in the postseason. Only four of the eight teams that played scored at least 20 points. And the Eagles actually won without hitting that threshold. The most points scored by a team on Wild Card weekend were 24. Next, the Eagles are a much more stable team than back in Week 11. The secondary has been solidified with Rasul Douglas, Cre'Von LeBlanc, and Avonte Maddox at cornerback. The defensive line has Tim Jernigan and a much healthier Haloti Ngata to team up with Fletcher Cox inside. As for the offense, it is executing better early. Since the first meeting, the Eagles are actually outscoring the Saints in the first quarter of games. In that Week 11 game, look at the first three drives. The Saints ran 29 plays, gained 232 yards, and scored 17 points. The Eagles had 10 plays, 20 yards, and no points.
2. What’s the bigger concern for the defense – QB Drew Brees or the RB duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram?
Fran Duffy: The bigger concern is definitely Brees. The Eagles have stopped the run at a really high level over the last few weeks, and I don’t think that will change Sunday. Kamara, in particular, is more of a threat in the passing game, but the key for me is stopping Brees. Keep him from stepping up in the pocket, get pressure in his face, and I think it’s a recipe for success on defense in this game.
Dave Spadaro: The offense goes through Kamara and Ingram and every defense will tell you that the first priority is to stop the run and make an offense one-dimensional. However, in this case, I think the bigger concern is Brees. He’s so quick, he’s so accurate, and he’s so smart, and he will pick the defense apart if he is given time. I say the biggest concern is Brees and limiting the explosive plays down the field, crowding him in the pocket, and getting him off his game. Brees is an extraordinary player. If the Eagles can somehow make him ordinary, the defense will have the Saints right where they want them.
Chris McPherson: The answer is Brees. He is not going to be caught by surprise by anything that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz throws at him. The Eagles must limit the run as the Saints love to run play-action based off the success of the ground game. In the first matchup, the Saints' first play from scrimmage was a Mark Ingram run for 39 yards. That set the tone right from the jump. Going back to those first three drives from November, the Saints faced only one third-and-long situation that the team converted. The Eagles must stop the run in the early downs so the defense can get after Brees on the money down.
3. Can the offense succeed if the ground game continues to struggle?
Dave Spadaro: Even though the ground game was minimally effective in Chicago, the Eagles kept trying. They had 20-plus attempts, and at the very least the threat of a running game kept the Bears' defense honest. To me, the way Nick Foles is getting the football out so quickly and the way the short passing game is connecting serves in part as a running game – the Eagles stay in front of the sticks offensively. The success the Eagles have had since Week 12 – the Eagles scored on 33 of their 76 drives, ranking second to Kansas City during that period of time (Week 12 to Week 17) – shows that Doug Pederson and Mike Groh have something going here. The offense has chemistry and has finally found an identity.
What’s the identity? Short passing game, spread the ball around, and take a few shots down the field. The running game is going to continue to be a backfield-by-committee approach and the Eagles are going to keep the Saints' defense engaged in the run game, but for the most part, it’s a throwing offense. And as long as the line of scrimmage is won by the Eagles and Foles stays clean and the receivers do their jobs, the offense will succeed.
Fran Duffy: That’s a good question. I didn’t expect the Eagles to have a ton of success against Chicago and its vaunted run defense, but they’re not facing a slouch this week with that New Orleans front seven. The Saints allow just 3.60 yards per carry this year, which is second in the league, and have only allowed 30 runs of 10-plus yards (also second in the league). This is a good run defense. Being able to run the ball is critical, and I do think the Eagles need to stay committed to the run game to a certain extent, but I don’t expect the team to run for 150 yards. Does that mean I think they’ll lose? Of course not. This team can win without running the ball, but it’s certainly easier to move the ball with an effective ground game in tow.
Chris McPherson: Yes. Just look at the win over the Bears last week. The Eagles had just 42 rushing yards but stayed with it just enough to keep the Bears honest. New Orleans' run defense is almost as good as Chicago's. It's going to be tough sledding once again. The key is limiting the turnovers. Both of Nick Foles' interceptions came in Bears territory, including one throw in the end zone. Whether it kept three points or 14 points off the board, that could make all the difference.