To quote famous professional wrestler Ric Flair: “To be the man, you have to beat the man.”
After watching the Philadelphia Eagles escape Chicago with a white-knuckle victory, the New Orleans Saints will attempt to do what the Bears could not and beat the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Philadelphia scraped its way into the postseason to try and defend its Super Bowl title and survived a nail-biter in Chicago on Sunday, edging the Bears 16-15 as Cody Parkey’s 43-yard game-winning kick for the NFC North champs hit both the left upright and the crossbar — after Eagles defensive tackle Treyvon Hester got a piece of it at the line of scrimmage — before harmlessly falling in the end zone in the closing seconds.
The reward for the Eagles was a trip to the Big Easy, where it will be anything but for Philadelphia against the conference’s No. 1 seed. New Orleans repeated as NFC South champions, going 13-3 for its best mark since also posting 13 wins in 2011, and has unfinished business from last year’s postseason after its stunning loss to Minnesota on the final play of last year’s 29-24 loss in the divisional round.
This is the second time this season the Eagles are playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the first game was not one they will recall fondly. The Saints administered a 48-7 beatdown in Week 11, the largest loss ever absorbed by a defending Super Bowl champion.
New Orleans rolled up 546 yards of total offense as Drew Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for 174 rushing yards while rookie wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith stole the show with 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown after entering the game with 12 catches for 214 yards and three TDs.
(Stay tuned to this space for an expanded preview with quotes, videos and picks Friday!)
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Philadelphia Eagles Review
The other noticeable difference from Week 11 to this game for the Eagles (10-7) is Nick Foles will be under center and not injured starter Carson Wentz. Foles has reprised his role as playoff hero for Philadelphia and delivered an effective performance against a vaunted Bears defense, completing 25 of 40 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Foles hooked up with midseason acquisition Golden Tate on a 2-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-goal with 1:01 to play, capping a 12-play, 60-yard drive in which he completed passes to five different Eagles receivers. Foles was successful because Philadelphia did a masterful job shutting down Chicago’s pass rush, conceding one sack while neutralizing edge rusher Khalil Mack.
It was the first road playoff win for the Eagles since knocking off the New York Giants in the 2009 divisional round, and they have not won two road games in the same postseason since that year, having also defeated Minnesota in the wild-card round.
This is the fourth all-time meeting with New Orleans in the playoffs and first since the Saints rallied for a 26-24 win at Philadelphia in the wild-card round of the 2014 playoffs.
Foles, then playing in Chip Kelly’s system, rallied the Eagles from a 13-point deficit to take a 24-23 lead with 4:54 to play on a 3-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, but Brees calmly guided the Saints 34 yards after current Eagles running back Darren Sproles returned the ensuing kickoff 39 yards to set up Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal as time expired.
New Orleans Saints Review
The Saints, who have not been to the NFC title game since winning Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, matched a franchise record with their third 13-win season after also doing so in 2009 and 2011.
This time around, New Orleans has a defense that complements its high-powered offense. The October acquisition of cornerback Eli Apple from the New York Giants stabilized the secondary and improved the defense, which held six straight opponents to 17 or fewer points from Weeks 10 through 15. New Orleans also finished a close second to Chicago for fewest rushing yards allowed in the NFL at 80.2 per game — the second-best mark in franchise history.
Offensively, Brees was his normal self and will be on the short list to win his first NFL Most Valuable Player award. While his passing yardage was down — Brees sat out the last game and finished eight yards shy of his 13th consecutive 4,000-yard season — he bettered his own NFL record for completion percentage at a staggering 74.4 percent, an improvement of 2.4 percentage points above his 2017 standard.
Brees, who will turn 40 two days after this game, is atop the NFL’s all-time passing yards and completions lists. His 520 touchdowns passing are 19 behind Peyton Manning for the all-time lead.
Running the Ball: Who Has the Edge?
Philadelphia Eagles Rushing Offense
The Eagles finished with 58 rushing yards on 12 carries in the first meeting in large part because they were playing from behind virtually the entire game. Philadelphia went 3-and-out, 3-and-out, and Wentz threw an interception on the third possession as New Orleans raced to a 17-0 lead in the first 17:53 of the game.
Last week was not much better as the Eagles had the look of a team running the ball for the sake of running the ball as they totaled 42 yards on 23 carries at Chicago. Their longest run was 10 yards — one each by Sproles and Wendell Smallwood — and five of the 23 rushes resulted in negative yards.
But the fact the Eagles continued to run into the teeth of the Bears defense speaks of the commitment needed to win in the playoffs. And with the Eagles having won six of their last seven games behind a resurgent offensive line, they will again try to establish a ground game.
“We’ve got tremendous confidence knowing what we do,” Smallwood told KYW radio
. “We think we have one of the best O-lines in the game. We feel like we can run the ball on anybody. We’ve played some great defensive guys and guys with a good front. It doesn’t matter to us.”
New Orleans Saints Rushing Defense
To put how far the Saints have come defensively, especially in the run game, consider that the 2012 team allowed 147.6 rushing yards per contest. The 2014 and 2015 teams were not much better, yielding 132.8 and 129.4 yards per game, respectively.
“We felt like we gained a little bit of momentum defensively after the ’17 season and felt like that was an area we could still improve on,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen told NOLA.com
, referring to the team’s modest improvement to 17th last season. “I think our guys really had a goal to be one of the better defenses in the National Football League. I think we have the talent to be able to do that, so our guys have worked extremely hard to put themselves in position to be there.”
New Orleans was one of three teams not to allow a 100-yard rusher this season along with Houston and Indianapolis. That streak is likely not in danger in this game, but the real key for the Saints is being able to get off the field — all three losses came when opponents ran the ball at least 30 times against them.
Notable Rushing Statistics
Philadelphia Eagles Offense
Philadelphia Eagles — 1,570 net rushing yards (28th)
98.1 net rushing yards per game (28th)
398 rushing attempts (20th)
24.9 rushing attempts per game (20th)
3.94 rushing yards per carry (30th)
12 rushing touchdowns (T-20th)
Individual Rushing Statistics
Josh Adams — 120 carries/511 yards/4.26 yards per carry/3 TDs
Wendell Smallwood — 87/364/4.18/3
Corey Clement — 68/259/3.81/2
Jay Ajayi — 45/184/4.09/3
Darren Sproles — 29/120/4.14/1
Carson Wentz — 34/93/2.74/0
Nelson Agholor — 3/32/10.67/0
Nick Foles — 9/17/1.89/0
Nate Sudfeld — 2/-2/-1.0/0
Golden Tate — 1/-8/-8.0/0
New Orleans Saints Defense
New Orleans Saints — 1,283 net rushing yards allowed (2nd)
80.2 net rushing yards allowed per game (2nd)
356 rushing attempts (29th)
22.3 rushing attempts per game (29th)
3.60 rushing yards per carry (2nd fewest)
12 rushing touchdowns allowed (T-10th fewest)
Individual Defensive Statistics
Demario Davis — 74 solo/36 assist/110 total/4.5 stuff/11 TFL
Vonn Bell — 61/26/87/4/4
A.J. Klein — 42/28/70/6/7
Alex Anzalone — 45/14/59/1.5/3
Marshon Lattimore — 49/10/59/0/1
Marcus Williams — 46/9/55/0.5/0
P.J. Williams — 44/9/53/0/2
Eli Apple — 42/10/52/0/0
Cameron Jordan — 35/14/49/6/18
Sheldon Rankins — 26/14/40/3.5/12
Alex Okafor — 25/11/36/0/5
David Onyemata — 23/12/35/1.5/4
Ken Crawley — 28/3/31/1/1
Kurt Coleman — 21/9/30/1.5/1
Tyeler Davidson — 8/15/23/1.5/2
Marcus Davenport — 12/10/22/3.5/6
Manti Te’o — 12/6/18/0/0
Craig Robertson — 8/2/10/1/2
Justin Hardee — 9/0/9/0/2
Chris Banjo — 3/2/5/0/0