New Orleans head coach Sean Payton knows the Eagles aren’t the same team that absorbed a 48-7 shellacking to the Saints on November 18 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Eagles have won six of their last seven games since that low point in the season and are in the early stages of preparing for Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
“Situationally, they're playing well. They're playing well in the red zone, defensively and offensively,” Payton said on Monday in a press conference with New Orleans reporters. “I think they're obviously a different team than we faced earlier in the year. A different quarterback is playing right now. I think there is a confidence you see. The one on the road was a big one for them in L.A. You just go through the games and you go through the win streak and you have Houston next, at Washington, at Chicago. They've kind of been in a playoff role really going back to those games needing to win to get in. So it's impressive.”
Among the many changes for the Eagles since that game is a new quarterback. Carson Wentz is out as he recovers from a stress fracture in his back, replaced by Nick Foles. Wentz had one of the worst games of his young NFL career in the loss to New Orleans, completing 19 of 33 passes for 138 yards and three interceptions. Foles has won four straight games since replacing Wentz in the lineup and has been dynamite in clutch situations.
Payton has long followed Foles and he admires what the quarterback is doing.
“I think he has done a great job within the framework of what they're doing,” Payton said. “They have very good weapons outside, a lot of different targets, (among) the tight ends (and) the receivers. There is a confidence level he has in operating in rhythm spreading the ball around. I think he does a great job of beating pressure with a throw. Yesterday you saw him a handful of times with a free rusher coming in his face make some throws outside the numbers that were real impressive. I think he's one of those players that's playing with great rhythm and there's a calmness obviously when you watch him play that we all see.”
The Saints are facing an Eagles offense that has been more explosive and diverse in recent weeks, scoring early in games and finishing off drives. The self-inflicted wounds have been minimized. The Eagles are just playing better football offensively now than they were then, and they are getting everyone involved.
“When you start dealing with (Alshon) Jeffery and you start dealing with (Zach) Ertz and you start dealing with (Golden) Tate. You look at (it and) here are the things that you have to defend,” Payton said. “You have to be able to handle (Nelson) Agholor. You have to be able to hang and handle these targets and it is more than just one. I think that is one of the things that makes their offense go is their ability. You saw it in the final drive yesterday. One play it is Jeffery, the next play it is down to (Darren) Sproles, and then there is Ertz. You have to defend a lot of good targets.”
The Saints' offense had its way with the Eagles in November, rolling up 546 total net yards. Quarterback Drew Brees tossed four touchdown passes. It was too easy for the Saints.
The Eagles have improved on defense since that time, starting with the pressure up front.
“Our league is game to game and one of the things that you know going in is going to be pass rush, (and the importance of) pass protection,” Payton said. “They have a dynamic rush front. Jim (Schwartz) and those guys do a great job getting after the passer. Malcolm (Jenkins), (the) secondary, they’re very, very smart players. This is the Super Bowl Champions. You have a game and it's over with and now you're on to the next game and obviously this is the most important one. But I would say their ability to get after the quarterback and make him throw it earlier than you want to is something they've done very well.”