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Spadaro: 6 storylines to follow Sunday

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

Welcome home, Eagles. After three weeks on the road, the team plays the first of two games at Lincoln Financial Field to close out the regular season. One win clinches the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, a bye week, and home-field advantage in the conference postseason. And, of course, the NFC East title – a division, by the way to remind you, that hasn't had a repeat winner since the Eagles from 2001-04. That's how crazy this division has been since then.

Anyway, we have some great storylines in this game against the 6-9 Saints, a team that has a playoff pulse – New Orleans needs to win Sunday and next week against Carolina and have Tampa Bay lose its final two games of the regular season. What to watch on Sunday? Here we go ...

1. At quarterback for the Eagles, Gardner Minshew (likely)

The Eagles listed Jalen Hurts as doubtful on Friday's injury report, so barring any final-day turnaround – and the Eagles would then adjust his game status upward so there is no deception – it's going to be Minshew for his second straight start. He played well at Dallas, completing 24 of 40 passes for 355 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Minshew knew where to go with the football and his timing and accuracy were on point. The Eagles moved the football up and down the field.

Now he's had another week of reps in practice and the timing and chemistry with the rest of the offense are that much better.

"It was a real good week of practice," he said on Friday.

The Eagles are playing a Saints defense that ranks second in the NFL in pass defense and that hasn't given up more than 20 points since Week 9. New Orleans is legit. Which brings us to ...

2. A new look for the Eagles' offensive line

The hopeful news is that Lane Johnson will rest, recover, and rehab his abdominal/groin injury rather than have surgery and there is a chance he can be ready for the postseason, whenever that starts for the Eagles. In the short term, though, the Eagles are faced with the task of replacing Johnson, a Pro Bowl star, at right tackle for Sunday against a good New Orleans front that features Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and the much-improved Carl Granderson, who has four quarterback sacks for the Saints. New Orleans allows 132 yards per game on the ground, but the Saints are stingy against the pass. How does the offense change, if at all, without Johnson? Who will the Eagles play at that right tackle position – Jordan Mailata, Andre Dillard, Jack Driscoll?

The Eagles have options and they have had all week to formulate a plan. But it won't be a simple plug-and-play situation. Johnson is an outstanding player – Head Coach Nick Sirianni called him the best tackle in the NFL. The Eagles have quality depth here, but Johnson is special.

3. Tamping down the turnovers

A team that had been remarkably low in giveaways all season has been too sloppy the last couple of weeks, with three turnovers in Chicago and four in Dallas and if you want to point to a singular reason the Eagles' offense bogs down – it hasn't happened often, as the team leads the NFL with 29.7 points per game – it's because of the turnovers. How can the Eagles be more secure with the football? The coaches have emphasized it more in practice this week, as they did after the loss to Washington (four giveaways) and it certainly helped. But it's really on the players.

It is a daily message at the NovaCare Complex, so let's see how it works in this extremely crucial game on Sunday. If the Eagles don't lay down the football, the offense hums. It's as simple as that.

4. RB Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill – a handful for the defense

New Orleans has some dangerous players on offense – don't sleep on wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, who is averaging 19.7 yards on his 19 receptions – but none are more dangerous or more unique than running back Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, who plays tight end, wide receiver, running back, and quarterback on a slow day.

Kamara is a terrific dual-threat back who can threaten the Eagles with his receiving skills. He's a powerful runner with breakaway speed who has 717 rushing yards and 480 receiving yards (that totals 1,197 yards from scrimmage) and the Saints like to get him in space. How do the Eagles handle him? They have to do so as a group, so the more Eagles you see around him on every play, the more the defense is accepting Kamara as a group challenge.

Hill is going to get 8-10 touches in a variety of ways, so the Eagles have to account for him whenever he is on the field. He's big and strong and powerful and a big-play maker with 515 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Unique player used in a bunch of different ways and there truly is no other player like him in the NFL.

5. Injuries a factor for Saints, too

This has been a season of injuries for the Saints, and they have more to deal with on Sunday. Left guard Andrus Peat, a really good veteran, is out for this game, further challenging an offensive line that has dealt with injuries throughout the season. Safety Marcus Maye has been in and out of the Saints' defense all season and he will be out for a second consecutive week on Sunday. A handful of other players, including wide receiver Chris Olave (hamstring) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (abdomen), have missed time in recent weeks and were limited all week in practice.

New Orleans is not the team it thought it would be, in large part because of a ton of injuries. That continues to be the case on Sunday. The Eagles don't have Lane Johnson and they don't have cornerback Avonte Maddox and they are likely without Hurts. That is not easy to overcome. New Orleans is in the same boat, with a thinner roster and several more injuries.

6. Preparing for a special teams attack

Saints Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi is known as one of the best in the business and his special teams are extremely aggressive. The Eagles have to prepare for fake punts with Hill serving as the upback and capable of taking a direct snap and running, and they have to prepare for Rizzi's overloading his kick coverage team to attack for a block.

It's business as usual for Michael Clay's group, but Rizzi has a league-wide reputation and Clay has some first-hand knowledge of that.

"Rizzi does a really good getting these guys to play. Very fortunate enough that I played under Rizzi in Miami for a cup of coffee, and just to understand what his mentality is and how the players play to such a high level is because he cares about his players and it shows on film," Clay said earlier in the week. "So, we have to be ready for a big opportunity and a big challenge in the Saints. They've been really good on special teams for a long time now, so we have to make sure we're locked in and be able to go against a very good unit like they are."

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