Saints shoot for first road playoff win in frigid Philly
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Philadelphia Eagles were predicted to win five or six games under new head coach Chip Kelly.
Called on from the college ranks to replace Andy Reid, Kelly implemented a whole new atmosphere in the City of Brotherly Love and now has the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The Eagles won 10 games and took advantage of a weak NFC East by capturing the division title on the final weekend of the regular season. Now they're set to host Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field in the Wild Card round.
Kelly's debut as an NFL head coach got off to a rousing start with a big win at Washington on "Monday Night Football," but the Eagles fell back to earth with three straight losses. They snapped the slide with a win at New York and quarterback Nick Foles replaced an injured Michael Vick to take over for good under center. Foles made his first start in Week 6 at Tampa Bay and helped the Eagles even their record at 3-3.
However, Foles would suffer through his worst start as a pro on Oct. 20 versus Dallas and was knocked out of the game with a concussion. After a brief Vick appearance and a Matt Barkley sighting the next week in a loss to the Giants, Foles stormed back with seven touchdown passes at Oakland, then led Philadelphia to another road win against Green Bay. The Eagles won five in a row at one point and erased a 3-5 start by finishing the season 7-1.
Philadelphia squeezed past the Cowboys, 24-22, last Sunday night to capture the division crown and bring playoff football back to the Linc.
"It's a great feeling," Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson said about returning to the playoffs. "Our fans are going to go wild. It's a great opportunity to bring the playoffs to Philadelphia on Saturday. We just need to have a great week of practice and get ready for a good team coming in here."
Foles passed for 263 yards with two TDs and no interceptions in Big D, while the heart-and-soul of the offense, running back LeSean McCoy, recorded 131 yards on 27 carries to break the franchise's single-season rushing mark, which was previously held by Wilbert Montgomery. McCoy led the NFL in rushing yards (1,607) and yards from scrimmage (2,126) and will face a Saints' defense rated 19th in defending the run (111.6 yards per game). The Eagles finished the season first in rushing yards (160.4) and second in total yards (417.2).
McCoy, Foles and Jackson give the Eagles a scary offensive trio, while the speedy wide receiver had a career-high 82 receptions for 1,332 yards, the second-most in team lore. Not to be forgotten, wide receiver Riley Cooper had a career year and put a foolish offseason incident in the past by hauling in 47 passes for 835 yards and eight TDs. He emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 17.8 yards per catch.
All that wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the efficient play of Foles. The lanky QB threw for 2,891 yards with 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, the best TD/INT ration in NFL history. Foles' 119.2 passer rating led the league and he compiled 21 TD passes over the last eight games of the regular season.
Foles now faces Brees and the two attended Westlake High School in Austin, TX.
"I've always watched him from afar," Foles said of Brees. "He's a great player and one of the best to ever play the game at the position. He's a guy I've watched and learned from and he's done a lot of great things throughout his career, on and off the field, and he's a great role model for fellow players, kids and adults."
New Orleans failed in its bid to capture an NFC South title and perhaps its struggles on the road this season didn't help. The Saints were an impressive 8-0 under the lights at the SuperDome, but 3-5 in enemy stadiums.
Brees and the Saints captured a playoff berth with last Sunday's 42-17 demolition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as Brees passed for 381 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions and surpassed the 5,000-yard passing mark for the fourth time in his Hall of Fame career. Brees, who has eclipsed the 5,000- yard passing mark in each of the previous three seasons, threw a TD pass in every game this year, finishing with 39 total, 5,162 yards and 12 INTs.
The Saints did not make the playoffs a season ago when head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire year because of a bounty scandal. Payton and Brees have formed a solid friendship both on and off the field, and the quarterback is ready to get going again for another Super Bowl run.
"That is always where the expectation has been," Brees said of reaching the playoffs with or without Payton. "I know that we fell short of that last year and that was disappointing. We expected to be here with Sean, without Sean. Obviously having him back is great and he has a way of just little things to just kind of remind you of the focus and the opportunity and why we are all here."
Brees, who won the Super Bowl in 2009, is the only player in NFL history with two or more 5,000-yard seasons and has three straight 300-yard passing games in the playoffs.
New Orleans welcomed Payton back by winning its first five games, but stumbled in a road matchup at New England. The Saints responded by winning four of five games, then dropped three of the next four before closing the regular season by crushing the Bucs. The Saints probably thought winning the division would be a no-brainer because Atlanta struggled, but Carolina came out of nowhere behind Cam Newton to claim the division and a first-round bye.
Much like the Eagles minus the ground attack, the Saints have a solid quarterback and plenty of talented pass catchers. Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham finished the season with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to record at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in two different seasons. Graham had six 100-yard games and is a huge target for the Saints.
"It's been a good year for this team. We have been through a lot," Graham said. "We have had ups and downs. We have learned a lot from our mistakes."
Graham and wide receivers Marques Colston (943 yards, 5 TD) and Kenny Stills (641 yards, 5 TD) get to line up against Philadelphia's average secondary. The Eagles were last in passing yards allowed (289.8) and 29th in total yards allowed (394.2) in the regular season. They have played better on defense, though, especially against talented receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.
But while Graham seems to be Philadelphia's biggest issue, it will be running back Darren Sproles who can wreak havoc. Sproles was one of four players with at least 70 receptions (71) and finished with 604 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns. Running back Pierre Thomas aided in New Orleans' pass attack by grabbing 77 passes for 513 yards and three scores. Thomas also had a team-high 549 rushing yards and two TDs. He is nursing a chest injury, but should play.
The Saints, losers in three straight on the road, were second behind Denver in passing yards (307.4) and fourth in total yards (399.4).
New Orleans and Philadelphia will meet for the third time in the playoffs, as the Eagles won back in 1992 and the Saints prevailed in 2006. The Eagles lead the all-time series by a 16-12 count, but New Orleans has won two in a row and four of the past five encounters between teams.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brees is playoff tested and brings a wealth of postseason knowledge into Saturday's game at the Linc. Brees has faced the Eagles five times in his career and has thrown for 1,408 yards with 10 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Regardless of the weather, which has been an intriguing topic leading up to Saturday's game, Brees is wary of Philadelphia's defense despite the unit's struggles against the pass.
"Yes, but their defense all around has been extremely solid, especially the last half of the season," Brees said. "They are great at taking the ball away. They are great at getting pressure on you. They fly around and make all kinds of plays. They have all kinds of playmakers at the line of scrimmage, at the linebacker position and in the secondary. I really just look at this last half of the season and they have played tremendous."
That may be true, but the Saints have played together for some time and have an advantage in that respect. The Eagles, especially on defense, were assembled in the offseason.
"A lot of familiarity. We have been through a lot together. We know the expectation level. We know the preparation," Brees said of the Saints playing together. "I think there is a level of pride that comes along with that and accountability. You want to perform well for each other. You know how much we have invested. I think when we all, hopefully we all have a lot of time here together, but I would say it is pretty rare that you have that many guys to be here for that period of time."
The Saints have lost their last two road playoff games and will face frigid conditions in south Philly. A lot has been said of New Orleans and its inability to succeed on the road. Payton isn't bothered by the comparison because both teams have to show up and play.
"It's the playoffs and I think the focus isn't so much about road and home, this is the path," Payton said. "This is the schedule. The big thing as a coach is trying to cover every detail regarding your opponent, trying to cover the specific situations that can come up in a game, making sure you are prepared that way."
New Orleans just has to take the film out on the Detroit-Philadelphia game in blizzard conditions a few weeks ago. Normally a high-powered offense, the Lions were thumped by Philly's run game and turnovers. Matthew Stafford never got into a groove under center or with Johnson, and the fans at the Linc played somewhat of a roll in the snowy event. Snow is expected to fall in the Delaware Valley Friday, but the field will be clear come kickoff.
The Eagles should be concerned about their defense versus the Saints. With playmakers all over the field and two solid running backs in Thomas and Sproles, the home team will be in for a long night.
Eagles cornerback Cary Williams isn't going to change the way he prepares against Brees and his quick trigger.
"I'm going to play my game regardless. I could care less what Drew Brees does with his release," Williams said. "I'm going to be in the receiver's face, I'm going to disrupt the timing. I'm going to try my very best to play 60 minutes as tough as I possibly can."
That's what the Eagle need to know to stay alive and punch their ticket to the Divisional round. It's well known what Kelly's offense is capable of doing, as the Eagles became the first team in NFL history to have a quarterback with a 100-plus rating, a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,300-yard receiver. But it all boils down to defense.
Brees talked about the Eagles' front line and its ability to collapse the pocket. Cedric Thornton, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan provide the bulk up front and make it easier for the linebackers to roam free. All that starts up front, according to Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
"I think our pass rush has been pretty solid, and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting," Davis said. "It's not always sacks. I think we get our share of (hits). I think we're getting there."
As previously stated, Davis' bunch has to be aware of Sproles and Thomas coming out of the backfield. Eagles second-year linebacker Mychal Kendricks said that will be the "biggest task." Kendricks has speed, too, but acknowledged how the opposing backs are "quick, agile and can get into small spaces." The Eagles' defense has developed a chemistry the past few months and matches up well with anybody in the playoff field.
It took a few weeks for Kelly to make an impact with the team and now the music during practice, smoothies and plenty of sleep for the players doesn't seem extraordinary. His team has won four in a row at home and set franchise records for points scored (442), total net yards (6,676) and touchdowns (53).
The Eagles were able to outlast the Cowboys on the road to get where they are, but playing at home Saturday versus the Saints doesn't equate to a guaranteed victory. The Saints can perform well under adversity and have no issues about the road or the weather.
"You try to prepare for it as best as you can, I guess just mentally, but once you're there, hey listen, it's football," Brees said of the weather. "It's about execution. It's about knowing your assignments and executing it. Whatever the conditions are, you manage that, whether it's wind, rain, snow or whatever. I wouldn't say that we're going up there into a situation that we haven't been in before."
Kelly would agree with Brees' statement and reminded Philadelphia about Tampa Bay's struggles in the cold more than 10 years ago. How did that work out? The Bucs closed Veterans Stadium with a win in the 2002 NFC Championship and went on to win the Super Bowl.
"Tampa Bay didn't win a game in cold weather until they came in here and did it, so we are not going to get really caught up in that one, I can tell you that," Kelly said.
New Orleans will prove it can win in frosty conditions, too.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Eagles 27
01/02 16:09:56 ET