Good morning. It’s game day. The Eagles-Saints game kicks off at 4:40 p.m., when the Eagles will try to avenge a Nov. 18 loss and upset the Saints in the divisional round to advance to play the Los Angeles Rams in the conference championship. The Eagles are eight-point underdogs to the No. 1 seed, so it will be a significant challenge.

This is a special Sunday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

Keys to the Eagles-Saints game

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles throws the football against the Chicago Bears in a NFC Wildcard playoff game on Sunday, January 6, 2019 in Chicago.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles throws the football against the Chicago Bears in a NFC Wildcard playoff game on Sunday, January 6, 2019 in Chicago.

A prolific Nick Foles performance

Last week, I thought the Eagles could win without a big game from Nick Foles. Not this week. The Eagles need a Super Bowl-esque performance from Foles to keep pace with Drew Brees and the Saints offense on their turf. It’s certainly possible; the Saints have the 29th-ranked passing defense in the NFL and Foles has shown that when he catches fire, he’s dangerous. Despite a lackluster offensive performance in the first game against the Saints, the Eagles can take advantage of some of their matchups – including Alshon Jeffery on the outside and the two tight ends against the Saints safeties. Brees is the superior quarterback in this game (even those in midnight green-colored glasses should admit as much), but so was Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. If Foles can go drive-for-drive with Brees, the Eagles can win this game.

Don’t fall behind early

The Saints scored on three of their first four possessions against the Eagles in November, jumping to a 17-0 lead before the Eagles could even score a point. That limits the play sheet, gets the crowd energized, and neutralizes the Eagles’ pass rush. It can’t happen on Sunday. The Eagles offense finished last in the NFL in first-quarter points this season after leading the league one year ago. The defense needs early stops, too, and they’ve answered the bell recently. In the past five games, they’ve allowed just 16 points on the opponents’ first three possessions. (Check out Paul Domowitch’s story for more.) If the Eagles remain in contention early, they should be in contention late.

Three, not seven

The Eagles led the NFL in red-zone defense this season, but it didn’t seem that way against the Saints in November. New Orleans scored on four of five red-zone trips. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins acknowledged that Drew Brees and the Saints will make plays and move the ball. But when the end zone is close, the Eagles must be at their best. If the Eagles can limit the Saints to field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, they’ll stay in the game. If the Saints scored only field goals instead of touchdowns when reaching the red zone in the first game, it would have been 16 points off the board. A big reason the Eagles left Chicago with a win last week was that the Bears were 0 for 3 in the red zone.

More pressure

There was only one game this season in which the Eagles didn’t record a sack. It was the one game they lost by more than one possession. The Eagles need to pressure Brees, who’s hard to bring down. It might be tough for the Eagles to have a four-sack performance against the Saints, but there’s a correlation between sacks and victories for the Eagles. They’re 5-1 this season when they have four sacks. They’re 0-2 when they have one sack or fewer. Brees has only been sacked 17 times this season despite attempting 489 passes. But nine of those 17 sacks came in his last five games. The Eagles defense is built around the line. They must win their matchup up front. The Saints are hard to stop when Brees has time.

Find chunk plays

Even in a low-scoring game last week, the Eagles had three plays longer than 20 yards. Two of them propelled scoring drives, and the other would likely have netted points if Foles didn’t throw an interception. In the Week 16 win over Houston (another playoff team), the Eagles had eight plays of 20 or more yards. One week earlier against Los Angeles, the Eagles had three of those plays. In that first Saints game, the Eagles only had one play longer than 20 yards. It was Josh Adams’ 28-yard touchdown – the Eagles’ lone touchdown of the game. (The Saints had nine that day!) Sure, the Eagles are capable of long drives. They’ve shown that with Foles. But if they can have a quick-strike drive, it’ll help them put up the points likely needed to compete with the Saints. I don’t think the Eagles will have a big day running (the Saints are No. 2 against the run this season), although they’re certainly capable of breaking a run or two to help Foles and the offense.

Neutralize the crowd

It gets loud at the Superdome. That’s no secret. And it’s a difficult place for opponents to win in the postseason. The Saints have won their last six postseason games in New Orleans, including a January 2007 victory over the Eagles in the divisional round. They haven’t lost a home playoff game since the Eagles beat them in 1992. When the Eagles are on offense, Jason Kelce and Foles must be in lockstep. Good thing Kelce is one of the finest centers in the NFL. He left the first Saints game after six offensive snaps. The Eagles have practiced with artificial crowd noise to prepare them for this. I think a raucous environment can sometimes be overstated – the main reason the Saints are so good at home is because Brees is their quarterback – but the best way to neutralize a crowd is by hanging in the game and limiting big plays. It happened in Chicago last week and the Eagles are still playing.

Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett dances after sacking Washington quarterback Josh Johnson during the fourth-quarter on Sunday, December 30, 2018 in Landover, MD.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett dances after sacking Washington quarterback Josh Johnson during the fourth-quarter on Sunday, December 30, 2018 in Landover, MD.

What you need to know about the Eagles

What you need to know about the Eagles

I wouldn’t send extra rushers. I think the Eagles need all the help in coverage they can get, and they need to trust that their pass rush can win at the line. You’re right – Drew Brees can neutralize the pass rush. I think the Eagles go into the game understanding that and they focus on situational football – third downs and red zone. If they can limit the big plays, they’ll force the Saints into third downs, and then it’s just a matter of trying to get off the field. When the Saints get into the red zone and the field is tighter, the Eagles must make stops and show why they had the best red-zone defense in the NFL. But I wouldn’t blitz – they tried that a bit more than usual in the first Saints game, and I wouldn’t go in that direction unless it’s an end-of-half/end-of-game situation. We’ll see. I think Jim Schwartz’s plan is different this time around.

“Every game will play out a little bit different,” Schwartz said. “Again, what we did, what happened in that game, is really going to have no bearing on how we play in this one and how they play in this one. It's going to be determined by the players that are on the field now, how well we execute, how well we tackle and how well we adjust to what they are doing.”

I’d say Cre’Von LeBlanc. The Eagles like him and he’s proven he can play slot cornerback. That’s a valuable position, and he would give the Eagles flexibility with their other cornerbacks (such as Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox) who can play on the outside. Maddox can also play safety. It would allow them to play more dime packages. So LeBlanc is clearly valuable this season, but I’d put him on the roster next season, too, when the Eagles are healthier at cornerback.

Interesting question. The answer would almost always be Reggie White, considering he’s one of the best players in NFL history and perhaps the best player in franchise history. The Eagles pass rush would be devastating with White. I’d think unless the team didn’t have a quarterback, that should be the answer.

However, I now see your follow-up tweet:

So my answer to that would be LeSean McCoy. An in-his-prime McCoy would do wonders in this offense with the way he can run and catch. The Eagles don’t have the personnel they need in the backfield, and McCoy was special. He’d bring this offense – and this team – to another level.