Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Eagles-Saints: It should be a different game

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 12

When analyzing Sunday’s second-round playoff game between the Eagles and the Saints (4:40 p.m.), references to the Saints’ 48-7 humiliation of the Eagles on Nov. 18 probably should be banned. The Eagles are a completely different team than they were in mid-November.

Since that loss to the Saints, which dropped the Eagles to 4-6, the Birds are 6-1, including last Sunday’s crazy 16-15 playoff victory over the Bears. The Saints (13-3) aren’t quite the same team, either. They weren’t bad down the stretch, but they didn’t look like the juggernaut that won 10 straight games after losing their season opener to the Buccaneers. The Saints didn’t score more than 31 points in their six games after defeating the Eagles, a total they exceeded seven times during their first 10 games.

A more relevant comparison than the first Eagles-Saints game might be to compare the Saints to the Bears. The Eagles should have an easier time putting up points against the Saints than the Bears. On the other hand, the Saints have a much more dangerous offense than the Bears. Drew Brees is much better than Mitchell Trubisky, and the Saints have a more effective rushing attack.

The Saints are 8-point favorites, but, if we learned anything from last season’s playoff run, it’s that the Eagles relish the underdog role.

Can the Super Bowl champions pull off another upset? Here are 10 questions to consider prior to and during Sunday’s game.

Which team has the better quarterback from Westlake High School (Texas)?

Drew Brees and Nick Foles both attended Westlake High School, west of Austin. Brees has had a Hall of Fame career, and this season might be the best of his career. He completed 74.4 percent of his passes for 3,992 yards and 32 touchdowns while only throwing five interceptions. His quarterback rating is an incredible 115.7.  Still, that’s a drop from where Brees was before the first Eagles-Saints game (77.3 completion percentage, QB rating of 123.8). He’s thrown just seven touchdowns while giving up four interceptions since the win over the Eagles. After setting a franchise record with 471 passing yards against the Texans and tying an NFL record with 25 straight completions against the Redskins in the regular-season finale, Foles didn’t light the world on fire against the Bears’ defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. But, after throwing two first-half interceptions, Foles led the Eagles on two touchdown drives during the second half, including the game-winning drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate. Brees gets the edge, but not by much.

Why will the Eagles do a better job against Brees than on Nov. 18?

The defense is so much better than when Brees carved the Eagles up for 363 yards and four touchdowns, completing 22 of 30 passes. The defensive line, led by Fletcher Cox, has become dominant again. The secondary, which was in disarray last time against the Saints, has made dramatic improvement. If the defensive line can apply pressure and cut off passing lanes for the 6-foot Brees, it will make life much easier for the secondary.

Aside from the quarterbacks, what’s the biggest difference between the Bears offense and the Saints offense?

The Saints have a much more effective running game. Alvin Kamara has 194 carries for 883 yards and 14 touchdowns. Mark Ingram has 138 carries for 645 yards and six touchdowns. In the first game against the Eagles, Ingram gained 103 yards on 16 carries and Kamara added 71 yards on 13 carries. The Eagles must slow down the running game.

Who are Brees’ top targets?

Michael Thomas led the NFL with 125 receptions for 1,405 yard and nine touchdowns. Alvin Kamara was second on the Saints with 81 catches for 709 yards and four touchdowns. The scary element for the Eagles is that neither Thomas nor Kamara had his best against them. Thomas caught four passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. Kamara only caught one pass, a gorgeous 38-yarder at the end of the game that led to accusations that the Saints were running up the score. Both Thomas and Kamara could be more productive  this weekend than in the regular-season matchup, but it’s unlikely that rookie Tre’Quan Smith, who had 10 catches against the Eagles and only 18 the rest of the season, will repeat that production Sunday. Speedy veteran Ted Ginn Jr., who didn’t play in the first game against the Eagles, is expected to play Sunday.

Did the Saints run up the score against the Eagles in the first game?

Former Saint Malcolm Jenkins, who made a gesture toward Saints head coach Sean Payton after being burned for Kamara’s late receiving touchdown, certainly thought the Saints were running up the score. Jason Peters said this week that the Saint ran up the score. Whether the Eagles believe the Saints ran up the score may be more important than whether or not they actually did so.

Who are the Saints’ top defensive players?

Defensive end Cameron Jordan (12 sacks) receives most of the attention, but linebacker Demario Davis (team-leading 110 tackles, 5 sacks) deserved recognition. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple are both pretty good. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (8 sacks) is capable of generating pressure up the middle.

What has been an overlooked reason for the Eagles’ improvement?

The defensive line has received most of the non-Nick Foles credit for the Eagles’ improvement. The offensive line seems to have been overlooked. The Eagles didn’t run for many yards against the Bears’ top-ranked defense, but Foles received solid protection last week, with Khalil Mack held without a sack and the Bears notching just one sack.

How important is a fast start?

The Eagles can’t afford to have anything remotely close to the first meeting, when the Saints built a 17-0 lead before the Eagles had a first down by any means other than a penalty. The Eagles need to put more than the three points they scored against the Bears during the first half last Sunday.

Why are drafts important?

Let’s examine the Saints’ 2017 draft. With the 11th overall selection, they picked Marshon Lattimore, who is their top cornerback. They traded up to the 32nd overall pick, the final pick of the first round, to select Ryan Ramczyk, who is their starting right tackle. In the second round, with the 42nd overall pick, the Saints selected Marcus Williams, their starter at free safety. In the third round, the Saints hit the jackpot, trading up in the third round to select Alvin Kamara with the 67th overall pick. Later in the third round (No. 76), the Saints selected Alex Anzalone, who starts at linebacker. To sum up the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Saints drafted five starters, including two or three potential All-Pro players, and a current backup. For those who want to compare, the Eagles selected defensive end Derek Barnett (14th overall), cornerback Sidney Jones (43rd) and cornerback Rasul Douglas (99th) during the first three rounds in 2017.

Are the Saints unbeatable in the Superdome?

The Saints’ only two losses at home this season came in the season opener against the Buccaneers and in the final regular-season game, when they rested most of their key players. They’ve won their last six home playoff games, with five of them coming since Drew Brees teamed up with Sean Payton. If you want a positive sign, the Saints’ last home playoff loss occurred in 1992 – against the Rich Kotite-coached Eagles.

Prediction: The Saints are big favorites (8 points), but I expect a much closer game than the regular-season meeting. I would be surprised to see another blowout. The biggest difference will be the pressure the Eagles’ defensive line generates against Drew Brees. Nick Foles has proved that he is a terrific quarterback on the big stage. If there’s a problem for the Eagles on offense, it could be their inability to consistently gain yards on the ground. Former Saint Darren Sproles could alleviate that concern. Can the Eagles’ remarkable run continue? Maybe. But probably not. Saints 28, Eagles 25

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