The Saints, Panthers, or Falcons will come to Lincoln Financial Field a week from Saturday to face a Wentz-less Eagles team. That’s all anyone will care about between now and then, but that isn’t the only thing that matters. As such, here’s a primer on how each team measures up against the Birds. Consider it a guide for whom to root for on wild-card weekend.
Strengths: When Drew Brees is your quarterback but your running game is your best weapon, that’s formidable. Mark “Boom” Ingram and Alvin “Zoom” Kamara are the first running-back duo in NFL history to reach 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. They also combined for 20 rushing touchdowns and 25 TDs overall, and Kamara’s 6.1 yards per carry was first among running backs, by 1.1 yards. Ingram was fourth, at 4.9. The Eagles’ run defense was the best in the league, but it didn’t face anything like Boom and Zoom.
Weaknesses: The Saints improved their defense overall, but their run defense is suspect. It allows 4.4 yards per carry, third worst in the NFC, which is the best possible news for the Eagles, who led the NFC in rushing through Game 15 (Game 16 was meaningless) and who need to minimize the burden on quarterback Nick Foles.
Foles factor: It’s unfair to compare Foles with any of the other three quarterbacks, considering each of the three has led his team to a Super Bowl. Its most unfair to compare him with Brees, a future Hall of Fame player who should be a short-list MVP candidate this season. He’ll be 39 on Jan 15, but, in his 11th Pro Bowl season, he completed a career-high 72 percent of his passes, the best completion rate in league history. He also led the league with 386 completions and 8.1 yards per completion. He had only 23 touchdown passes, but his running backs were TD machines; no team had ever had running backs account for more than 10 total TDs each. The Saints’ pass defense led the league with 20 interceptions and was tied for third with 42 sacks, the keys to their 79.0 opponents’ passer rating, third best in the conference. The Eagles were comparable, at 19 picks, 38 sacks, and 79.5. In this game, however, the passers themselves would not be comparable.
Linc factor: Four of the Saints’ five losses came on the road, including a season-ending clunker at Tampa Bay. In their three road losses to playoff teams, the Saints scored no more than 20 points. The last five opponents at Lincoln Financial Field averaged 9 points. So, there are your magic numbers.
Strengths: At the moment, mental toughness, Julio Jones, and Matt Ryan on third down. There’s no substitute for experience, and even if the Falcons’ 2016 ended with the biggest meltdown in Super Bowl history, they seem to have recovered. They started 2017 with a 4-4 hangover and seemed likely to continue the 23-year streak of Super Bowl losers not getting back to the big game. But their win at Carolina this past weekend made them 6-2 in the second half and denied the Panthers the home playoff game that accompanied the NFC South title, which fell to New Orleans. Jones averaged 95 receiving yards over the last four games. Despite a midseason slump, the Falcons led the NFL in third-down conversions, at 44.7 percent.
Weaknesses: The defense improved, and the Falcons have four more sacks than they did in 2016, but the pass rush has not been as fierce as advertised. Linebacker Vic Beasley led the league with 15 1/2 sacks and forced six fumbles last season. He has five sacks and one forced fumble this season, partly because he was asked to drop into coverage more often, and partly because he missed three games with a hamstring injury. Still, what projected to be a standoff between Beasley and right tackle Lane Johnson might be a big Johnson advantage.
Foles factor: Matty Ice didn’t exactly validate his MVP season of 2016, but he recorded a season more typical of his 10-year career — a season Foles would take in a heartbeat. As with Brees, comparing a franchise passer such as Ryan with Foles is like comparing an omelette to scrambled eggs. One has a lot more to offer. If you’re looking for a silver lining, consider that no team in the NFL intercepted fewer passes than the Falcons, who had just eight.
Linc factor: The Falcons lost at the Linc last year. As an NFC South team in a dome-filled league, they haven’t played a bad-weather game since Dec. 8, 2014, at Green Bay. In that game, the weather didn’t seem to matter. Ryan — a Penn Charter product who played at Boston College — threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns. Jones, an Alabama native, caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a score. But that was a long time ago. And they lost.
Strengths: The run defense, ranked third in the league, surrendered a total of 126 yards in the last two games. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has matured since the Eagles won at Carolina in Game 6; he has averaged 4.8 rushing yards per carry in the second half of the season, two yards more than he averaged in the first half, and he scored five of his seven TDs in the last eight games. Receiver Devin Funchess has five TD catches since the unexpected trade of Kelvin Benjamin, who matched his career high with nine catches that night against the Eagles, for 99 yards. Also, Cam Newton. Maybe.
Weaknesses: The Panthers’ 22 turnovers are the most of any NFC playoff team. On defense, they have only 10 interceptions and their opponents’ passer rating of 92.9 is the highest of any NFC playoff team. So, you know for whom Nick Foles is rooting.
Foles factor: In 2015, Cam Newton was a transcendent, paradigm-changing quarterback, and everybody wanted a QB like him. In 2017, Newton is an enigmatic fashionista who retains dazzling talents but makes baffling decisions. Offseason shoulder surgery hindered him early, but he can be a nightmare to defend, as he was after the Panthers lost to the Eagles and Bears in consecutive games. The Panthers won seven of the next eight. Newton threw 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, averaged 60 rushing yards, scored three rushing TDs, and was sacked just 11 times. Then, last week, with a home playoff game at stake, he threw three interceptions. His passer rating of 80.7 is the worst among NFC playoff quarterbacks who are regular starters. Foles’ rating: 79.5.
Linc factor: The Panthers haven’t won a road playoff game since 2005, but they used to be pretty good at it. They won a big one at the Linc in 2004, but back then, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was in his last season as coach of the Eagles linebackers, and Cam was just a Georgia kid with a burgeoning interest in portable computers.