Dec 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin (22) celebrates scoring a touchdown with quarterback Nick Foles (9) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Bears 54-11. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Semi-Coherent Philadelphia Eagles vs. New Orleans Saints Preview: The One Where They Begin a Run to the Super Bowl


Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles are in the playoffs!  Not many people expected this to happen.  Coming off of a disastrous 4-12 season, most pundits predicted another last place finish for the Birds.  There were very few who predicted a six-win improvement and an NFC East division title.

As fans, we should be happy.  No matter what happens from this point on, it would be difficult to view this season as anything but a smashing success.  But there seems to be a growing sentiment that because the Eagles already have done more than was expected, they’re currently “playing with house money.”

It seems reasonable to think that with a rookie head coach, a second year quarterback, and a roster that skews young, the Eagles are destined to improve over the next few years.  Even if they fall short of the Super Bowl this season, there will still be plenty more – and probably better – chances in the seasons to come. Not that the mindset of the fans necessarily reflects the mindset of the coaches and players (nor will it have any real impact on the game), but I would still advise people against that approach.

There’s a cliché that the NFL stands for “Not for long.”  Thanks to free agency, the salary cap, and the instant impact that draft picks can make, a football team’s fortunes can change in a hurry.  It doesn’t take long for yesterday’s “team of the future” to become a team that never quite fulfilled expectations.

Just look around the NFC East for some good examples.  In 2009, after winning the NFC East, many people hailed the Dallas Cowboys as an emerging power.  The young core of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, and DeMarcus Ware looked poised to win a Super Bowl (or two) in the coming years.  But they were never able to take that next step, and they haven’t even been back to the playoffs since.

Robert Griffin III. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Remember last year at this time?  The Washington Redskins and their star quarterback Robert Griffin III appeared to be a team on the rise.  Most people expected them to take another step forward this season, and some even pegged them as a Super Bowl contender.  Instead, their coach was just fired and their would-be savior quarterback is now regarded as a huge question mark.

There’s even a good example from the Eagles’ not-too-distant past.  After the Eagles lost the NFC Championship Game to the Rams in January 2002, most people were optimistic about the Eagles’ future.  Even though they had ample opportunity to win that game, many fans weren’t too upset by the loss because they thought that there would be plenty more chances in the future.  Given another year or two of growth, Donovan McNabb and company seemed destined for a Super Bowl title or two.  We all know how that turned out.

There’s a good chance that the Eagles might never have a better opportunity to win than they do this season.  Quite a bit broke right for them this season, and they were able to take teams by surprise.  After an offseason of study, defenses will have a better idea of how to stop Chip Kelly’s offense.  And many those “sports science” concepts that have seem to have given the Eagles an advantage will likely be copied by others.

The Eagles may not be the favorites in the playoffs, but there is a recent history of long shots winning the Super Bowl.  Considering how well they’ve played in the second half of the season, you have to think that the Eagles at least have a fighting chance.

They’ve got a star running back who can absolutely take over games.  They’ve got a quarterback who seems to be capable of making every throw necessary.  They’ve got a defense which may not be dominating, but seems to have a knack for forcing turnovers and making big plays when needed. More importantly, there’s no imposing powerhouse team standing in their way.  It won’t necessarily be easy, but the Eagles are capable of beating every team in the playoffs.

Will they succeed?  We’ll start to find out on Saturday night.

What’s the Deal with the Saints

Image Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The big storyline is that the Saints have been a much better team at home than on the road.  In the confines of the Superdome, the Saints offense has proven to be near unstoppable.  But when they are forced outside, they’ve been much less effective. In their last four road games, they’ve averaged only 13.25 points per game.

Is there a reason for this?  The obvious answer is that playing in a climate-controlled environment is better for high-speed, pass-based offenses, and the Saints certainly enjoy passing the ball.  They have the fourth most passing attempts in the league and the second most passing yards.

The talent level is impressive.  Quarterback Drew Brees is one of the best in the league, and Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are two of the best pass catching backs around.  When you factor in receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills as well as tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints have plenty of options in the passing game.

Fortunately, the game will not be played indoors.  The game will be played in Philadelphia, and it is expected to be cold.  Both teams can talk all they want about how the weather won’t change much, but it’s difficult to deny that this is a huge advantage for the Eagles.

Defensively, the Saints haven’t been highly regarded in recent years, but they have improved considerably this season.  Under coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints ranked fourth in both yards and points allowed.  The Saints have been especially tough against the pass, but somewhat vulnerable to the run.

I didn’t think the Eagles committed to the run enough against the Cowboys, and I’d like to see that change against the Saints.  We should see a lot of LeSean McCoy runs, and I’d like to see a good amount of carries by Bryce Brown and Chris Polk as well.

Featured Saints Player: Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham has seized the title of “best tight end in football,” and doesn’t appear likely to give it up any time soon.  With 1215 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns, it is obvious that he is a large part of why the Saints offense is so potent.

Jimmy Graham. Image Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If you happen to be in a fantasy football league, take a look at which team owned Graham.  Chances are, that team qualified for the playoffs partially because the production that he got from the tight end position was so consistently impressive.

The Eagles don’t seem to have an easy answer for how to cover Graham.  Normally, they have linebackers cover opposing tight ends, but neither Mychal Kendricks nor DeMeco Ryans have been especially strong against good tight ends this season. Neither one would seem to be an ideal match here either.

They’ll probably mix up coverages a bit, but I wouldn’t mind seeing one of the Eagles’ large cornerbacks – Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher – lined up across from him the majority of the time.

Maybe they should try signing recently retired Nnamdi Asomugha?  Asomugha had many well-publicized shortcomings during his time on the Eagles, but he was actually pretty successful when he was assigned to cover tight ends.

Key Eagles Storyline

The Eagles are looking for their first playoff win since beating the Giants after the 2008 season.  If you recall, that game featured the play when Donovan McNabb ran to the Giants sideline and pretended to make a phone call:

Considering that happened six (SIX!) years ago, I’d say the Eagles were overdue for a playoff victory.

Foles-o-Meter

It wasn’t his finest performance of the season, but Foles did enough to win the game against the Cowboys.  The blocking in front of him wasn’t great, and there were a few plays in which his lack of mobility seemed to really hurt the offense, but he continues to avoid interceptions, and has been putting the ball where his receivers can make plays.

With a win in last week’s pseudo playoff game, he’s already shown he can win in a big game.  It will be interesting to see how he does in his first actual playoff game.

Foles

Elsewhere in the NFL

Aaron Rodgers returned to the Packers and led them to victory last week.  They’re the sixth seed in the NFC, but with Rodgers leading the way, would anyone be shocked if they ended up representing the conference in the Super Bowl?  If they do manage to win it all, this would be the second time in the past four years that they won it all as the sixth seed.

Chappelle’s Show Skit that Relates to this Week’s Game

The Saints might not do so well when forced outside.  You know how does thrive outdoors?  Famous homeless person Tyrone Biggums!

Tyrone

The Week in Andy

The scene: General manager John Dorsey enters Andy Reid‘s office.

Dorsey: So are you ready for Sunday?

Reid: Yes.

Dorsey: Thinking up an amazing game plan?

Reid: Already done.

Dorsey: Wow.  That’s impressive.

Reid: Sure is.

Dorsey: So you think it’s a winning plan?

Image Credit: Stan Liu-USA TODAY Sports

Reid: Yep.  We got the run-pass ratio right where I like it: 45 passes, 21 runs.

Dorsey: Wait…how do you know how many runs and passes you’ll need?

Reid: Because I scripted out the plays.

Dorsey: Oh, is that the thing where you script out the first fifteen plays of the game?

Reid: I used to do that, but then I asked, “Why stop there?”  So, I started scripting out all the plays.

Dorsey: All the plays?  For the entire game?

Reid: Yep.

Dorsey: But how is that even possible?  Doesn’t a lot of the play calling depend on game situations?

Reid: A good play is a good play no matter the situation.

Dorsey: But what if you’ve got a run play called on 3rd and 22, or a pass play called for 3rd and inches….oh wait.  This explains a lot.

Reid: Explains a lot of about what?

Dorsey: Let me ask you a question, coach: Who are we playing this week?

Reid: Hold on… (Opens a binder on his desk and turns a few pages) …the Colts!

Dorsey: Thanks, coach.  Good luck on Saturday!

Reid: Don’t you mean Sunday?

Dorsey: No, we play on Saturday.

Reid: Oh, okay.  Good.  Thanks.

Final Take and Prediction

The Saints are beatable, especially on the road.  They have some weapons on offense, but the Eagles have faced other talented offenses in the second half, and found a way to keep them in check.  I think the Eagles running game takes over and carries them to victory.

Eagles 31 – Saints 27

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