Doug Pederson is in his third year as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He's done some amazing things so far. Winning the Super Bowl and developing a pair of star quarterbacks makes for one heck of a résumé. There have been some tough games and big wins along the way. On Sunday, Pederson will have the toughest challenge of his young career.
The Eagles play the Saints, who had the best record in the NFL this year. The Saints are rested and healthy. They are at home, where their starters have lost just two games in the last two years.
History is also on the Saints' side. They have beaten the Eagles in the playoffs the last two times the teams have faced off. Those were the 2006 and 2013 seasons, so a lot has changed since then, but there is one constant. Drew Brees was the quarterback for both wins and he's still in place. Brees also guided the Saints to a 48-7 beatdown of the Eagles back in November.
Put simply, not many people will be picking the Eagles to win this game.
Eagles players are excited by the challenge. They want a chance to play the Saints again. That gives them a chance at redemption, and more importantly, to move closer to another Super Bowl.
This is January. Games aren't supposed to be easy. The deeper you get into the playoffs, the tougher the matchups should be. The Eagles had to face arguably the best coach and quarterback in league history last year in the Super Bowl. That didn't faze the Eagles. They went out and beat them.
The Eagles are a loose team right now. You see Pederson joking with the media. You see the players goofing around with each other. They are laughing and joking in the locker room and even on the field. That's a good sign.
The postseason can make some players and coaches nervous. If that happens, those teams don't play well, and they get beat. There is tremendous pressure at this time of the year. You need to be loose to deal with that.
The Eagles have been in playoff mode for more than a month now. They are used to the pressure. The Saints, meanwhile, weren't challenged by anyone in the division. They've been on Big Easy street for a while. We don't know how that team will respond on Sunday.
Any time you face the Saints, the conversation begins with how to defend Brees. The Eagles focused on coverage in the first meeting and that didn't work. Jim Schwartz has to decide if the problem was the scheme or the personnel. Remember that the secondary is playing better now than it was at that point.
Schwartz will mix things up from the first game, but that doesn't mean he'll suddenly become blitz-happy. The Eagles were among the teams that blitzed the least this year and Brees normally is very good against the blitz.
New Orleans ran for 173 yards in the first game, so obviously Schwartz has to plan for more than Brees. Maybe Schwartz will focus on the run game and stopping that. Put the game in Brees' hands but make him throw from unfavorable situations.
The Eagles' defensive line is playing better now than back in November and that will help. Tim Jernigan is back in the starting lineup and playing well. Haloti Ngata is also healthier, and it shows. Those two will help slow down the run.
The Saints' offensive line will have all of its starters back, but the players won't be 100 percent healthy. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long have to win their battles with those guys. If you can get pressure on Brees with just your front four, you can stop the Saints' offense. That changes everything.
The Eagles got little pressure on Brees in the first game. They must do that if they want to win on Sunday. You don't have to sack Brees, but you need pressure to affect him. If he's got a clean pocket, he will pick you apart.
Eagles linebackers need to do a great job against running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Those guys are threats as runners and receivers. When they pile up big yards, the Saints' offense becomes a machine. Linebackers and even defensive backs must tackle them in space.
The Eagles offense' must help the defense by sustaining drives and scoring points. If the Eagles go three-and-out too often, that will put tremendous pressure on the defense. The one surefire way to stop Brees is to make him a spectator.
The Eagles' offensive line did not play well in the first meeting. Lane Johnson wasn't completely healthy. Jason Kelce got hurt early in the game and missed some time. Jason Peters was dealing with nagging injuries. Carson Wentz was sacked three times and pressured too often.
The line is healthy now and playing its best football of the year. Johnson looks like a dominant tackle once again. Peters is coming off a good game. The interior trio is clicking. The Eagles' offense has been much better in recent weeks and one of the key reasons is the play of the guys up front.
We also have to give some credit to Nick Foles. He's been on a tear since taking over at quarterback. Foles is getting the ball out quickly and for the most part making smart decisions. When he does hold the ball and try to be more aggressive, Foles is at his best. He will hold the ball until the last possible second. That gives his guys a chance to get open and then he makes good throws. He gives them a chance to make plays for him.
No one has benefited from this more than Alshon Jeffery. He was limited to four catches for 33 yards in the first game against New Orleans. He will top both of those numbers on Sunday. Foles will throw him the ball, even when he's covered.
I'm curious to see what happens with the run game. Josh Adams played well in the first Saints game. The coaches haven't used him as much recently because of the matchups. They could move back to Adams this week and see if he can get going again. His speed helps this offense.
The Eagles won a tough defensive battle last week. I expect more scoring on Sunday. Both defenses played well down the stretch, but I'd be shocked to see a game in the teens. This game will be indoors and both quarterbacks can light up defenses. I don't necessarily see a 41-33 shootout, but it won't be 16-15 either.
I really am excited to see how the Eagles respond to the challenge of playing the Saints. We wondered if the Eagles were a playoff team. They got hot late and snuck in. We wondered if the Eagles would be one-and-done. Nope. They went to Chicago and won.
The Eagles can beat the Saints. They don't need luck. They don't need any miracles. The Eagles need to win the line of scrimmage and make plays in key situations. That formula helped them beat the division-winning Rams, Texans, and Bears. That formula can help them beat the Saints.
I think the Eagles will win the line of scrimmage – and the game.