The New Orleans Saints host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday in a divisional playoff match-up. This is a rematch of a week 11 showdown that the Saints dominated, winning by a 48-7 score. Since that time, Philadelphia has won six of seven games, including last week’s wildcard road win over the Chicago Bears.
NFL playoff history is littered with players who didn’t necessarily star for their teams during the regular season but had standout performances in the postseason that helped their teams advance. New Orleans earned the NFC’s top seed with a 13-3 record, and on the strength of a handful of players who are among the best in the league at their positions. Stars like Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Cam Jordan, Demario Davis, Marshon Lattimore, and the best offensive line in the National Football League will, of course, be counted on to play big in the pursuit of a championship. Here are a handful of players that could be X-factors when the Saints line up across from the Eagles this Sunday.
Ted Ginn Jr.
The 33-yr. old Ginn has played in just five games this year due to a knee injury that has him listed as questionable for this game. If Ginn does play, he brings twelve games of career playoff experience and adds a playmaking deep threat to the lineup. Ginn was outstanding in two postseason games with New Orleans last season, catching 4 passes for 115 yards and a long score against the Carolina Panthers, then adding eight receptions for 72 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. He returned to the lineup in week sixteen against the Pittsburgh Steelers and had an immediate impact, catching five passes for 74 yards and a key third-down catch to set up the winning score. Ginn’s playmaking ability forces a defense to account for him, which also opens opportunities for players like Thomas and Kamara underneath.
Smith, a rookie 3rd round pick, was expected to be the playmaking number two receiving compliment to Thomas. He has shown flashes of being able to do just that but has been extremely inconsistent, contributing to some of the team’s struggles in the passing game down the stretch. Smith finished the year with 28 receptions, 427 yards, and 5 touchdowns, including two 100 yard outings during the season. He was held without a catch in six games, though, and had just 159 receiving yards in the other 14 games combined. Smith’s best game of the season came against the Philadelphia Eagles when he had 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown. He showcased the skills to be a star that game, showing the speed to make plays deep, the route precision to gain separation from coverage, and the body control to make the tough catch in traffic. Smith must show these same traits to give the dangerous Drew Brees another weapon in the Saints passing game.
One of the reasons that the Eagles are here is due to a kicker; when Chicago’s Cody Parkey missed a game-winning field goal to secure the Philadelphia victory. Lutz has converted 28 of 30 field goal attempts this season, and has the leg strength to give New Orleans points from just inside of midfield. He has been key in clutch situations, which is often the difference between postseason advancement or a tragic end to a season.
David Onyemata, DT
Fellow defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has played at an All-Pro level for much of the season. Defensive ends Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and Alex Okafor have given the team a good pass rush and run stopping presence along the edge. Lost in the headlines has been the recent play of Onyemata, who has been outstanding down the stretch. He had a career-high 4.5 sacks this season, including 3 against the Dallas Cowboys, and has been a disruptive interior force over the last month. The 6’4 300-lb. Onyemata is an athletic freak, and along with Rankins possesses the ability to destroy the Eagles offensive scheme from the inside.
Vonn Bell, S
Bell has quietly had a very good season for the New Orleans defense. His 88 tackles were second on the team, something he’s done in all three of his seasons. Bell plays the run extremely well near the line of scrimmage, but also has the coverage skills to take on a tight end or wideout in man coverage. Bell’s coverage ability will be key against an Eagles offense that has multiple talented wide receivers, and two dangerous tight ends in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert.
Marcus Williams, S
There haven’t been many players more worthy of playoff redemption than this young New Orleans defensive back. Williams, of course, was responsible for the missed tackle that allowed the Minnesota Vikings to end the Saints season in heartbreaking fashion last January. Now the second-year safety is back in the division round and plays a vital role in a Saints pass defense that has made big plays down the stretch of the year. Williams will attempt to support cornerbacks Lattimore and Eli Apple against talented Eagle receivers Golden Tate, Nelson Agholor, and Alshon Jeffery, along with their playmaking tight ends. The Philadelphia offense relies heavily on its passing game, so Williams and the New Orleans secondary will likely play a pivotal role in whether the team is able to move on to their 3rd conference championship game during coach Sean Payton’s tenure.