Eagles And Saints Look For Hard-Earned Victory
By Frank Irving
At least one upset typically puts the "wild" in Wild Card Weekend. However, in the case of the New Orleans Saints, -2.5 underdogs at the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night, a win by the visitors wouldn't be all that startling. This game looks to hold true to the slim point spread.
Any discussion of the Saints chances starts with QB Drew Brees, who ranks fourth in NFL history in passing touchdowns, second in passing yards per game and second in pass completion percentage. He's directed 33 career game-winning drives, twice in the playoffs.
Brees' favorite target, TE Jimmy Graham, personifies a player in his prime. On an average day, he's good for six catches, 80 receiving yards and a scoring reception, and presents an imposing problem for Philadelphia's pass defense, ranked dead last in the league.
Brees also distributes the ball effectively to stretch-the-field wideouts Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Lance Moore, who combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season.
On defense, the Saints limit opponents to an average of 19 points per game, fourth best in the league. They bring considerable pressure to opposing quarterbacks, led by DE Cameron Jordon (12.5 sacks) and LB Junior Galette (12.0 sacks). LBs Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne patrol the middle of the field, shouldering the bulk of tackling duties, while defensive coordinator Rob Ryan routinely deploys five to six cornerbacks and safeties.
The Eagles will counter with the NFL's leading rushing attack, headed by MVP candidate LeSean McCoy and capable backups Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. Expect Philadelphia to move the ball in quick bursts, aided by QB Nick Foles' controlled passing game to TEs Zack Ertz and Brent Celek and an occasional deep shot toward WRs DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper.
In terms of intangibles, New Orleans will be able to rely on experience and steady guidance from Sean Payton, who has won about 65 percent of his regular season games over seven years of actively coaching the Saints (He was suspended for the entire 2012 season.) His teams have won five of eight playoff games, including a Super Bowl, during his tenure. On the other sideline, Philadelphia's rookie coach Chip Kelly will get his first taste of NFL playoff action.
At the same time, the Eagles hold the edge in team momentum, having won 7-of-8 games in the second half of the season, while the Saints stumbled a bit down the stretch, losing three of their last five games.
Las Vegas puts the over/under line at 54 points. The over/under total has gone under in four of New Orleans' last five games on the road and in five of Philadelphia's last seven home games. The weather forecast calls for clear skies, but with wind chills of about 15-18 degrees at game time. The predicted conditions would seem to support a relatively low-scoring contest. Also, consider that the Saints have lost five of their last six road games this season, averaging only about 18 points per game in the process.
In the end, the game may well come down to a deciding field goal attempt by the Saints K Shayne Graham, who has played for nine other teams in a nine-year career. Graham was acquired after Garrett Hartley faltered late in the season and lost the confidence of Payton. Graham has converted on both his field goal attempts with New Orleans to date.
Based on their playoff pedigree, New Orleans will control the clock, convert in key situations and earn the opportunity to move on to next week's divisional playoff round.