Another chapter in the Chip Kelly Era in Philadelphia is set to begin Saturday night when the Eagles host the New Orleans Saints in the Wild-Card round of the NFL Playoffs. The Saints (11-5) travel to the Linc to face the NFC East champion Eagles (10-6) in a matchup between two high-octane offenses and defenses that have the ability to sway the game.
Another interesting wrinkle in this showdown is these two teams’ struggles. The Saints have not be the same team away from the SuperDome, with a 3-5 mark on the road. Ironically enough, the Eagles have not been as good playing in their own building, owning a 4-4 mark at Lincoln Financial Field. Of course, the Eagles have reeled off four straight wins after an 0-4 start in front of their home crowd.
Midway through the season, New Orleans looked to be the class of the NFC, a true challenger to Seattle for the top seed in the conference. But since Seattle shellacked them in the Pacific Northwest in what many thought would be a big time NFL playoff preview, the Saints have struggled with consistency.
Since that Week 13 hiccup, the Saints defense has taken a step back and the offense has been turnover-prone. Rob Ryan’s defense has not been too stellar in terms of yardage allowed, but after forcing 17 turnovers through the first three months of the season, it forced just two in the final five contests. Likewise, Drew Brees and Co. have turned it over five times during that same span after coughing it up just 14 times in the first 13 games.
Despite issues with ball security, the Saints have remained an elite passing team. Brees pilots the No. 2 passing attack in the league, and while the running game ranks 25th, the backs have continually plagued opposing defenses as receivers out of the backfield.
Defensively, Ryan’s unit has held opposing passing attacks to 194 yards per game through the air and fewer than 112 on the ground, a major improvement over the 2012 version that was historically horrible. The task, of course, grows greater against Kelly’s high-flying Eagles.
Philly owns the best rushing attack in the NFL, headed by LeSean McCoy who rushed for a career-best 1,607 yards this season. Complementing the ground game is the steady arm of Nick Foles who, since taking over at quarterback Week 5 against the Giants, has thrown 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions, a record-setting mark.
The Eagles defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles, has been a thorn in the side of opposing offenses all year long. Altogether, the unit has forced 31 turnovers while stymying opposing running games. Since the Week 12 bye, no opponent has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark and overall only five teams were able to throughout the season.
There is no question the Eagles’ defensive weakness, its secondary, will be challenged by Brees and his plethora of offensive weapons. The Eagles rank dead last in the league against opposing passing attacks and will need to find a way to defend a host of weapons headlined by matchup nightmare Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and both Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas out of the backfield.
Conversely, the Saints must be able to slow down McCoy, who out-rushed the entire Saints team. In the past two weeks, New Orleans has held Carolina and Tampa Bay to fewer than 81 yards rushing and has held five of their past eight opponents to under 100 in recent weeks.
This game will likely be decided by defense, and which unit can step up and perhaps make a game-changing play, much like the one Brandon Boykin made to seal the Eagles’ fate against the Cowboys Week 17. Which turnover, which third- or fourth-down stop, and which unit will shine when the moment calls — we’ll see Saturday night.