NEW ORLEANS – As the cameras gathered around offensive tackle Lane Johnson upon the Eagles’ arrival at their New Orleans hotel, he characterized the team’s mindset as it prepared for today’s NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Saints.
“I think we’re motivated. I think we’re in a good spot and we’re ready to go play,” Johnson said.
Of course, it’s hard not to think back to November 18 and the 48-7 loss to New Orleans. The low point of the season became the rallying moment for a team that then won six of its last seven games to reach this point in the postseason.
“Yeah, especially after a long week of practice and film and getting that all done,” Johnson said. “Looking back at all of our mistakes, we get a chance to make all the wrongs right. We’re in a good spot.”
How do the Eagles approach this one? It’s been a productive week and an inspired one after the win in Chicago. The Eagles are on the road for a third straight week. How do they dig deep and find the energy to turn the tables on New Orleans?
“Just by being us,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said.
The Eagles have to play a whale of a game on Sunday to win, and they know it. New Orleans deserves the respect of a postseason No. 1 seed. The Saints are 13-3. They average 37 points per game at home (discounting the final regular-season game, when the Saints rested many of their starters). The home-field advantage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is very real.
And yet, the Eagles are playing like the defending Super Bowl Champions they are. They are physical, they are prepared, and they are playing with urgency. The offense has been one of the best in the league in the last seven weeks. The defense is applying pressure up front, tackling very well throughout, and taking the football away (last week notwithstanding). The special teams are winning the field position battle.
You know the storylines from a week of gnashing teeth and discussing the X’s and O’s of this game. There are some more items to digest here …
- Rookie cornerback Avonte Maddox had some tough moments in Chicago as the Bears set him up for double moves by the wide receivers and made big plays in the passing game. The teaching lesson for Maddox? “Better eyes, definitely,” he said. “The double moves are going to come and you just have to have better eyes. Once I have my eyes right, I’m going play the exact way that I play. I’m going to compete.” Will there be more coming on Sunday? “I know they’re coming,” he said. “Copycat league. I know they’re coming. And they already ran a lot of double moves before that.”
- Anyone who thinks the Eagles can lay back and play coverage against the Saints is mistaken. But then again, do you blitz quarterback Drew Brees and take your chances against a quarterback who knows what’s coming? “They’re as good now as they were then,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, referring to November 18 when New Orleans had its way offensively. “They create matchups. They have versatility. There’s a lot to prepare for. We have a solid plan. We have to make plays and compete and win one-on-one matchups. They’re a good team.”
- The screen game could be part of the Eagles’ offensive attack in this one, and Saints head coach Sean Payton is aware of the dangers, especially if running back Darren Sproles gets his hands on the football. “He has real good awareness and I think Darren has got incredibly good instincts on setting up some of these screens and Philly does a great job of giving you five, six, seven different looks on screens,” Payton said Friday after practice. “Quite honestly, we haven't been as good this year as we have in other years in that area, but a lot of it depends on the opponent you’re playing. But I think it’s part of what they do and they do a great job of kind of giving you a direction here and then coming back over there. Obviously, you need to have good eyes and really spend time on the formation, the depth of the back, all those things that might give you some indicators. But Darren and even the tight end (Dallas Goedert) got involved last week. It's something they do well.”
- A shoutout to Jenkins, by the way, for this excellence and his durability once again in 2018. Young players, I know, benefit from studying how Jenkins prepares himself every day for the grind of the season. Jenkins played 1,039 snaps, 100 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018, joining Denver safety Justin Simmons and Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack as the only players to take part in 100 percent of their team’s snaps during the season. Jenkins then played all 64 defensive snaps in the win over Chicago last week.
- Interesting to note that both wide receiver Mike Wallace (ankle) and cornerback Sidney Jones (hamstring) are listed as questionable for this game. It would be a bit surprising to see either in the lineup. The Eagles have a good rotation going at wide receiver and Wallace, if he were active, would need to play a part on special teams. Jones could provide some depth at cornerback, but the Eagles are pleased with the way Rasul Douglas and Maddox, along with Cre’Von LeBlanc at nickel, have played. Douglas is perhaps the most improved player on the team. He’s tackled exceptionally well and has improved his technique in coverage.
- Keep an eye on left tackle Jason Peters, listed as questionable with a quadriceps injury. All expectations are that Peters will play, and he needs to stay on the field for 60 minutes. His ability to stay on the field last week against Chicago was important, and the Eagles need him today for all four quarters.