Matchups. The game is almost always about matchups. The Eagles have distinct advantages in that regard as do the Saints. Most of the advantages for each team come on the offensive side of the ball, but New Orleans has a few more on defense and that’s why I’m giving them the edge despite everything we’ve heard about the Drew Brees and the Saints not being able to win on the road and in the cold.
The one matchup that I think greatly favors the Saints and could tip the scales in their favor is Cameron Jordan vs. Lane Johnson. Aside from J.J. Watt, he’s been the NFL’s most productive 3-4 defensive end. Jordan had 12-1/2 sacks during the regular season and an amazing 50 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Jordan will sometimes rush from right, but he spent most of his time in a three-point stance on the left lined up over the right tackle. Johnson is only a rookie in name at this point in the season. He’s not the player that struggled in September. But he still has learning moments. Jordan will probably get him at least on two or three occasions. The key is minimizing the damage when he gets beat.
Jordan would be easier to contain if he was the Saints’ only dominant pass rusher, but outside linebacker Junior Galette has been equally as fearsome this season. He had 12 sacks. Rob Ryan’s base scheme is a 3-4, but he gives multiple looks up front. Galette mostly rushes from the right and with his hand in the ground. Left tackle Jason Peters will see a lot of him. It should be a marquee matchup. Peters has been great this season, but he’s had some issues with elite pass rushers that can turn the edge (Tambi Hali, Jared Allen).
If Jordan and Galette can collapse the pocket on Nick Foles, he’s in for a long night. The Eagles offensive line had issues with the Cowboys’ front four last week, mostly because of stunts and games. The Saints don’t normally run many games, but the Eagles are expecting them to after watching the Dallas film. The inside guys – center Jason Kelce, guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans – have to be on their A games. Communication will be important against Ryan’s many blitz packages.
The Saints rush defense isn’t good, though. LeSean McCoy should have lanes to run through. Chip Kelly must stick with the run game. He’s done that for the most part this season, aside from in the Vikings game. Defensive lineman Akeim Hicks is the Saints’ primary run stopper up front. Herremans will be responsible for Hicks for most of the night. If he can seal Hicks and the other guys keep former Eagle Brodrick Bunkley at bay, McCoy should be able to get to the second level where he is lethal. Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are just average run tacklers.
In the secondary, the Eagles got a little break when safety Kenny Vaccaro went down for the season. He was having a solid rookie season and was especially good at playing near the box and helping against the run. Keenan Lewis and Malcolm Jenkins are the cornerbacks. Allen is better than Jenkins and could stick on DeSean Jackson for most of the game. The Eagles receiver has been quiet the last two games. Aside from his rookie season, Jackson was kept in check in playoffs games in 2009 and 2010. This could be his stage.
If the Saints can make the Eagles work for points as the Cowboys did last week, they have a more than good chance of winning with their potent offense. The weather will be a factor, but it will affect both teams. Brees is much better inside than out, but he played college football in the Big Ten. He’s had thrown in inclement weather before. He’s actually done it more than Foles. Game time temperatures are supposed to be in the 20s. The wind will be light. That’s cold, but not Green Bay cold.
Brees should be able to throw as often as he typically does. He has five dangerous weapons. I’d give the Saints the advantage in four of the potential matchups. The Eagles don’t have anyone that can slow tight end Jimmy Graham, although most teams don’t. Bill Davis will probably play a lot of zone and double him up with a combination of linebacker Mychal Kendricks and a safety whenever Graham lines up inside. Graham splits wide, too, and cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher will likely stay out there with him. Receiver Marques Colston is very good and sure handed. He has only three drops all season. Brandon Boykin will see a lot of Colston in the slot. Running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas catch a ton of balls out of the backfield. Sproles is more of a halfback. Davis may have to keep safety Nate Allen closer to the line to account for Sproles, which means the combination of Patrick Chung and Kurt Coleman could play more of centerfield. Scary. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans has become a liability in coverage. I give the edge to the Eagles against the outside receivers. Kenny Stills is a deep ball threat (20 avg.), though.
Up front, the Saints still have an above-average offensive line that looks better than it is because Brees gets the ball out so quick. Left tackle Terron Armstead hasn’t played much this season and can be beat. Trent Cole and Connor Barwin need to apply more pressure that they did against Kyle Orton last week if the defense is to slow Brees at all. The Eagles’ interior pass rushers will have trouble breaking through Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. Right tackle Zach Strief is a good pass protector.
As shaky as the Eagles special teams has been over the last month, I think it has the advantage over the Saints. The game could certainly be won or lost there, especially in inclement conditions.
Ultimately, I see the Saints doing enough on defense to slow Kelly’s attack and Davis’ unit having issues all night long against Brees and company. So it’ll be another shootout, one the Eagles lose.
Prediction: Saints 30, Eagles 28.
What goes right: McCoy is once again the Eagles best offense and goes over 150 yards from scrimmage.
What goes wrong: The Eagles safeties and pass covering linebackers are chasing Saints receivers all night.
The home-field advantage and the frigid temperatures are not just talking points this week. These are real factors in the game, and factors that could tilt Saturday in the Eagles’ favor.
When I look at the roster and watch the Saints, it appears New Orleans is a better team than the Eagles. But when analyzing some of the Saints’ road woes and understanding how a frenzied crowd and bitter cold could affect the Saints’ passing game, the dynamics of the game could change.
That’s why I’m giving the Eagles the edge this week.
The most important matchup in this game is how the Eagles will handle the Saints’ passing offense. The No. 2 passing offense vs. the No. 32 passing defense is as much of a mismatch as it seems. But Drew Brees has topped 300 passing yards in only three road games this season, and nine of his 12 interceptions have come away from home. Communication will be more difficult and the cold will make it more challenging to throw. Or at least that’s what the Eagles must hope.
I don’t think the Eagles can contain Jimmy Graham. In five games against top 10 tight ends, the tight end led the team in receiving in three of those games. Other than Calvin Johnson, Graham is the best skill position player the Eagles have played this season. New Orleans uses him in so many different ways. I can see linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks all taking their turn on Graham. Much has been discussed about Mychal Kendricks this week, but I would get Connor Barwin involved because of his size and athleticism.
The Eagles need to apply pressure with a four-man rush, because Brees is so quick against the blitz. The matchup I’m curious to watch is on the left side, where rookie tackle Terron Armstead makes his third season of the season. Trent Cole comes from that edge.
The Eagles will have their nickel defense on the field often on Saturday, which is good news because it gets Brandon Boykin more involved. The Saints don’t run the ball often or especially well, and their screen passes substitute for screens. Mark Ingram leads the Saints with 4.9 yards per carry, but he’s had more than nine carries just twice this season.
That won’t be the case for the Eagles, who can control the game by running the ball. The Saints have allowed only 100-yard rusher in the second half of the season. LeSean McCoy has run well against some of the better rushing defenses this season.
It would help if the Eagles ran to their right; the Saints allow 6.2 yards per carry when teams run behind the right tackle and 6.6 yards per carry around right edge. Big defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is on the side, but he’s often clogging the space between the tackles. McCoy is such a talented rusher around the edge. Pay attention to the zone read, too, which New Orleans has not seen often this season.
This would be a good week for the Eagles to get DeSean Jackson going again. He’s been quiet the past two games, with seven catches for 57 yards. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is having a good season, but they will miss do-it-all safety Kenny Vaccaro. Look for Zach Ertz to have his best game since Minnesota. Tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson must contain pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette.
Turnovers are always critical. The Saints have been even this season, with 19 giveaways and takeaways. The Eagles are plus-12, and it’s swung games throughout the second half of the season.
If this game was played in New Orleans or on a neutral field, I’d take the Saints. But the home field is an edge, and it’s the reason why I predict the Eagles will visit Carolina next weekend.
Prediction: Eagles 34, Saints 31.
What goes right: McCoy tops 100 rushing yards. Ertz finds the end zone. The Eagles win the turnover battle.
What goes wrong: The Eagles have no answer for Graham. Brees tops 300 passing yards. Safety play remains an issue.