Now that the New Orleans Saints know that they’ll be facing the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs this coming Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the question is whether or not they will be able to cool off one of the NFL’s hottest teams and the defending Super Bowl champions.
As most Saints fans are aware: New Orleans dominated Philadelphia at the Superdome by a score of 48-7 back during Week #11 in mid-November. It was what most Eagles players have said was a “low point” in their 2018 regular season.
Afterwards, Eagles All-Pro safety Malcolm Jenkins called out his teammates’ efforts, as Philadelphia left New Orleans that day in utter and complete embarrassment, their season appearing to be all but over with.
But since that point in time, Philly has won six out of their last seven games; and that includes their thrilling, final minute 16-15 NFC Wild Card game victory last night on the road against the favored Chicago Bears.
Now they’ll make a triumphant return into the Superdome this Sunday afternoon, looking to avenge the embarrassment they experienced after being blown out by the Saints on that unforgettable mid-November Sunday at the Superdome.
Jason Peters on how he felt after the Week 11 Saints loss: “They ran up the score. We wanted them again, we got them again. This time, we comings. It’s not going to be the same outcome.” #Eagles
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) January 7, 2019
The most glaringly-obvious difference between the Eagles on that day two months ago and now (at least from the Saints’ perspective) in this Sunday’s rematch will, of course, be at the quarterback position for Philadelphia, where Eagles backup quarterback and last year’s Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles has once again emerged as a late-season hero for the Philly franchise.
— Nick Foles (@NickFoles) January 7, 2019
So cool, so calm, it didn't matter that the not-so-perfect Foles showed up for 55 minutes. Down with the ball in his hands with the game on the line, was there ever a doubt?! Foles came through with the go-ahead TD drive. Here's every play of it … pic.twitter.com/MknQYzjlLe
— The Bitter Birds (@AdrianFedkiw) January 7, 2019
Foles is directly responsible for Philly’s resurgence. The Eagles beat the Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans, and then the Washington Redskins in three successive weeks to earn that final playoff spot, all under Foles’ steady guidance after he took over for #1 Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz who was sidelined with a stress fracture in his back.
Foles replaced Wentz famously in a similar manner just a year ago and led Philadelphia to its one and only NFL title when they defeated the New England Patriots last February by a score of 41-33 in Super Bowl LII (52).
Since taking over the reigns at quarterback from Wentz in Week #14, Foles was the top-rated quarterback in the NFL during the late-season stretch, ranking first in completion percentage (77.0) and passing yards (962) in those three successive Eagles victories.
And even though Foles wasn’t at his sharpest last night, pulling out a gutsy win on the road at Chicago Soldier Field is no small achievement.
“I think the big thing is, we saw some adversity tonight in the first half (and) I had a couple of turnovers,” Foles said to reporters after last night’s win. “I think the big thing is that no one loses faith, no one stops believing, everyone just keeps talking, keeps believing in one another, and we just rallied. Our defense really kept us in this game.”
Nick Foles is the first quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in consecutive seasons despite starting 5 or fewer games in the regular season each year.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2019
— The Ringer (@ringer) January 7, 2019
For New Orleans, the keys to a victory this Sunday will lie with the ability to limit Foles’ effectiveness by bringing a ton of pressure with their pass rush to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, and perhaps more importantly: holding up in pass coverage against the physically-imposing Eagles wide receivers and tight ends, who resemble a basketball squad more so than a football team at times.
Philadelphia was largely unable to get on track offensively against the Saints in that loss two months ago with Wentz at the helm but could fare much better with Foles leading the way.
With wide receivers Alshon Jefferey, Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews and recently acquired veteran Golden Tate (who was acquired from the Detroit Lions in late October for a third-round pick) ― along with the dual tight end receiving threat of Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert ― the Eagles suddenly find themselves with one of the most dangerous passing attacks in all of pro football.
— LastWordOnNFL (@LastWordOnNFL) January 6, 2019
All about those yards after catch for Dallas Goedert pic.twitter.com/NFSE4PFXOH
— No Huddle NFL (@NoHuddle_NFL) January 7, 2019
Collectively, they should present a much bigger threat to the Saints’ secondary this time around.
Nevertheless, the Saints have still opened up as an early 9.5 point favorite at home, in what promises to be a wild and rather boisterous Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the 3rd divisional playoff game at home in team history.
This Sunday’s contest will be the 4th time (1992, 2006, and 2013 seasons) in history that New Orleans and Philadelphia have met in the NFC Playoffs, with the Saints holding a slight (2-1) edge.
One would imagine that with home-field advantage, New Orleans will likely seek to dictate the pace and momentum (time of possession) of the contest, and undoubtedly on-field execution (limiting / keeping turnovers to a minimum) will play a huge factor in determining the final outcome.
But with a whole 2 weeks to prepare and playing in front of an amped-up Superdome home crowd, you’d have to think that New Orleans couldn’t possibly ask for a better scenario than the one they’ll be presented with Sunday evening.
However, the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are flying high and are looking to repeat ― and if the Saints hope to dethrone them and win another NFL title for themselves, they’ll have to be at their absolute best this coming Sunday in the Divisional Playoffs.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist and regularly appears on ESPN Radio New Orleans 100.3 FM “The Sports Hangover Show”. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view his other articles here.