Playoff Primer: Saints @ Eagles

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Three games this weekend will be played in front of many people dressed like arctic explorers. The players, coaches, and referees will be dressed warmly too, of course, with the exception of Ed Hochuli in Green Bay Sunday afternoon. His multi-layered muscles provide plenty of thermal protection.

The temperature we’ll see tonight for Chip Kelly’s first playoff game in his rookie year as a head coach won’t match the hell that will freeze limbs and organs in Green Bay tomorrow, because that could be the coldest game in NFL history. No, instead the forecasted temperature for this evening is a balmy and pleasant 21 depress Celsius, with 5-10 mph winds. That’s good for the Eagles, because they already won a game against Detroit this year at Lincoln Financial Field when seeing anything was difficult, and they’ll gladly hand LeSean McCoy footballs all night if that’s what nature permits. It’ll also be nice because Drew Brees can’t destroy the Eagles’ notoriously feeble secondary if he’s just a giant block of ice.

If the weather is even sort of cooperative, this is a game that could enter into shootout territory fast. Or maybe just one team will be doing the shooting.

The surface stats show one defense that’s vastly improved over last year under Rob Ryan, and another that was cut into tiny pieces much of the season.

Eagles offense Saints offense
Total yards P/Game 417.2 (2nd) 399.4 (4th)
Passing yards P/Game 256.0 (9th) 307.4 (2nd)
Rushing yards P/Game 160.4 (1st) 92.1 (25th)
Eagles defense Saints defense
Total yards P/Game 394.0 (29th) 305.7 (4th)
Passing yards P/Game 289.8 (32nd) 194.1 (2nd)
Rushing yards P/Game 104.2 (10th) 111.6 (19th)

A lot of large numbers are there in places where they shouldn’t be. Let’s dive in.

The other numbers that matter: You’re fully aware of Nick Foles’ lack of turnovers, but I’ll remind you anyway because it’s quite nuts, especially when that number is put alongside his touchdown total. Over his 13 games appearances (10 of which were starts), Foles threw only two interceptions and 27 touchdowns. That’s some serious care and maintenance, and it’ll play nicely against a secondary that picked off just 12 passes over 16 games. Then when Foles hands the ball off, bad things could happen for the Saints. Consult the handy chart again, and you’ll see that stopping the run isn’t exactly a strong point for the Saints defense, though they allowed only one 100-yard rusher over their last eight games. A front seven that gave up 15 runs of 20 yards or more (fourth most in the league) and 4.6 yards per carry (also tied for fourth most) will now attempt to stop LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing and had +130 yards in five games this season. That won’t end well.

But this won’t either: Drew Brees. In any other non-Pey Pey insanity season, we’d be gushing and writing love letters about Brees again. Along with Manning, he was one of two quarterbacks to pass for over 5,000 yards this year and average over 320 per game. And although he was several area codes away from Manning’s touchdown total, 39 TDs is still pretty alright. Soak in all of that, and then realize he’ll be chucking against the aforementioned worst secondary in the league that allowed a +130 yard receiver twice over just the past three weeks (the common occurrence of that number leads me to believe there will be many kabooms tonight).

Even better/worse depending on your fan affiliation, this Eagles secondary is also crummy against tight ends, allowing 60.5 yards per game to the position. The Eagles are a week removed from being ripped by Jason Witten (135 yards on 12 catches), and so between that and Martellus Bennett in Week 15, a leaky defensive backfield  has given up 220 yards to the position over just the last two weeks.

The injuries that matter: The Eagles might just be the healthiest team in NFL history. Of course, Foles’ rise may or may not have happened without Michael Vick’s inevitable crumble, and way back in late July during the opening days of training camp Jeremy Maclin went down. But they now enter tonight with just a few minor bruises. Last week’s hero Brandon Boykin has a hip injury, but it didn’t keep him from practice this week. Ditto for Mychal Kendricks and his knee injury. Wideout Jason Avant has a shoulder injury, but it’s not serious considered serious.

Things aren’t nearly as rosy in New Orleans, where Pierre Thomas will sit with a chest injury. Yes, the Saints have plenty of depth at running back in Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram, but they do two very different and separate things, while Thomas is much more versatile with over 500 yards both on the ground and through the air. Sproles is far more pass catcher than running back, and Ingram only rushed for 386 yards this year, 145 of which came in one game.

Another major blow on the other side of the ball is the broken ankle of impressive first-round rookie Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints’ secondary is still strong, especially with the support it receives from a pass rush that finished with 49 sacks. But yeah, Vaccaro watching with a busted ankle is painful for more than just him, and it will lead to opportunities for Zach Ertz and Brent Celek against the more well-aged Roman Harper.

The difference maker: With Chip Kelly’s tempo and quick striking, the Eagles’ offense is at its most effective when there’s plenty of chunk yardage being accumulated. McCoy does his part on the ground, but DeSean Jackson often equals his home run swinging. Foles threw just as many +40 yard passes as Peyton Manning this season (13 apiece), and he did it on 342 fewer pass attempts. Jackson caught five 50 yarders this year, three of which came from Foles

The matchup to watch: For the reasons directly above, it’s Jackson against Keenan Lewis (though I nearly put Jason Peters/Lane Johnson vs. Cameron Jordan here, because he’s a scary man with 12.5 sacks). While Jackson has done his deep burning, Lewis hasn’t allowed more than four receptions in a game.

The Eagles will win if… McCoy does McCoy things, and if Lewis wins his battle with Jackson (likely) Kelly then shifts his passing focus to Ertz and/or Celek, who will expose the absence of Vaccaro (also likely).

The Saints will win if… A pass rush led by Jordan and Junior Galette (who also has 12 sacks) crunches Foles to alleviate the pressure on Harper. Meanwhile, Brees rights his offense’s road wrongs. Of his 12 interceptions this season, nine of them came on the road, which is also where all five of the Saints’ regular season losses happened. Overall the Saints averaged 25.9 points per game, good enough for 10th. But in those road losses — one of which was to the Jets — that scoring dropped to 16.6.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Saints 28, Eagles 24