NEW ORLEANS — Get the feeling the Eagles want to distance themselves as far as possible from the last time they tangled with the Saints?
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, “You have to push the eject button.’’ He also said, “You flush it.’’ This might be easier said than done.
As different as the Eagles believe they are from the struggling team that staggered out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 18 on the wrong end of a 48-7 humbling, at least a few memories of that shellacking are sure to infiltrate their minds and emotions Sunday afternoon in an NFC divisional playoff game at a venue where the homestanding Saints usually soar.
It was the worst loss ever for a Super Bowl defending champion, an embarrassment the Eagles this week were forced to confront once again after they stunned the Bears, 16-15, in the NFC wild-card round to set up this rematch with the Saints.
“Well, immediately after the game, you flush it and you’re moving on to the next week’s opponent,’’ Pederson said. “I think for us this week it’s more of a resource. We go back and look at scheme. We go back and look at personnel, and you can’t look at the final score, obviously. We all know that, but you have to look at it from just Xs and Os — pure Xs and Os — and it’s good to have played them, because now you have it on tape.’’
Tucked inside that rout was Saints coach Sean Payton — on fourth-and-6 with his team already ahead by 31 points in the fourth quarter — calling for a pass that Drew Brees converted into a 37-yard touchdown toss to running back Alvin Kamara. At the time, the Eagles did not accuse the Saints of running up the score, but that did not stop safety Malcolm Jenkins, a former Saints player, giving Payton, his former coach, the middle finger after Jenkins was beaten by Kamara on the play.
Pederson this week said he did not view all this as an insult to his team.
“No, I did not,’’ he said. “Listen, we get paid to play, just like they do. We just didn’t make enough plays. We have to keep them out of the end zone and we have to score. We didn’t do either one very well.’’
This all sounds reasonable and sensible, but that did not stop left tackle Jason Peters, after surviving and advancing last week in Chicago, from recalling the first meeting with the Saints with distain.
“We didn’t play well at all,’’ Peters said. “They ran up the score. We wanted them again, we got them again. This time, hey, we coming. It’s definitely not going to be the same outcome.”
There is no doubt that loss did something to trigger the Eagles, who were 4-6 at the time. They closed out the season winning seven of their last eight games — facing elimination with a loss in any of their final three games. They qualified for the playoffs only after the Bears eliminated the Vikings in Week 17. Then last week they watched as a 43-yard field-goal attempt by Chicago’s Cody Parkey was partially blocked and clanged off the left upright then the crossbar, allowing the Eagles to live for another week and continue the stunning ride Nick Foles has taken ever since, once again, filling in for injured Carson Wentz.
Foles replaced Wentz last season and steered the Eagles to the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. Foles is 4-0 this season since taking over for Wentz, who is sidelined with a stress fracture in his back.
Wentz was terrible (three interceptions) the last time the Eagles were in the Big Easy. Foles is now in charge of an offense that comes marching in.
“I think you just have to look at where we’ve come and what we’ve done,’’ Pederson said. “Just the way this team has come together at the end of the season, to be counted out with even about three games to go … even to be into the postseason, needed a little bit of help. But this team believes. We’re a different group than when we played New Orleans the first time.’’
Saints WRs vs. Eagles DBs
The Eagles are battered in the secondary but somehow managed to navigate around all the injuries, largely thanks to a formidable pass rush. Still, this is a red-flag area, given Drew Brees’ uncanny ability to find a vulnerability and keep picking at the scab.
Look what he did the first time around, hitting rookie Tre’Quan Smith for 10 receptions for 157 yards and one touchdown. It was nearly half Smith’s full-season production. WR Michael Thomas is the real threat here, and the Saints now have Ted Ginn healthy to challenge the Eagles deep down the field and stretch safeties Corey Graham and Malcolm Jenkins.
Eagles CBs Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, Cre’von LeBlanc and Tre Sullivan will do what they can and hope the big guys up front can get Brees to get rid of the ball quickly. It would be a big benefit if the Eagles can get back CB Sidney Jones (hamstring). Here’s the bad news: The Eagles have allowed 12 different receivers to amass 100 or more yards this season and finished the season ranked 30th in pass defense.
Home sweet dome: The last time the Saint owned the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs was in 2009, a season that ended with their only Super Bowl triumph. The Sean Payton-Drew Brees duo is 5-0 in postseason games inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium (it used to be called the Superdome) and Brees has 12 touchdown passes and only one interception in those five games. The building is loud, the surface is fast and the Saints usually roll.
“That’s like we got 13 people on the field,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “The Dome is that much of an advantage with the noise and the energy and the atmosphere that comes from just playing at home. I think we got a little bit of confidence when we play at home.”
Trench battle: Brees does almost everything well, including helping his offensive line with stellar pocket awareness. As a result, he was sacked just 17 times this season. Offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk can deal with most situations but guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford, both banged up, need to get on the field, as the Eagles are coming. Their front seven totaled 44 sacks, led by Fletcher Cox (10.5 sacks) on the inside, and Michael Bennett (nine sacks), Chris Long (6.5) and Brandon Graham (4.5) from the outside. This could be where the game is won or lost.
Big Apple: Teams usually do not give up so quickly on a high first-round draft pick, but the Giants jettisoned Eli Apple (10th-overall pick in 2016) in late October, sending the lanky cornerback to the Saints for a fourth-round pick this year and a seventh-round pick in 2020. Apple has helped, and he and Marshon Lattimore are physical corners, but Apple remains susceptible to penalties and will be challenged by Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Golden Tate, as well as prolific tight end Zach Ertz, who set an NFL record for tight ends with 116 receptions. The Eagles certainly know all about Apple from his days with the Giants.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,’’ Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, “but the familiarity with our guys, our receivers who have gone against him, can definitely carry over from the Giants to the Saints.’’
Run fits: You think of the Saints on offense and you think of an aerial circus, but they have become increasingly more grounded. Would it surprise you to know they were sixth in the NFL in rushing this season, averaging 127 yards per game? This gets done with a true 1-2 punch. Kamara led the team with 883 rushing yards (plus a franchise-record 14 rushing touchdowns), and Mark Ingram added 645 rushing yards and six TDs. There also is the added dimension of quarterback Taysom Hill, who often takes the field in short-yardage situations. Churning out yards against the Eagles is no easy task — they were seventh in the league, allowing just 97 yards per game.
This is not the high-flying Saints we saw earlier this season — they averaged just 19 points in their final five games. Drew Brees turns 40 next week and needed the respite he got the past two weeks. Saints are rested but the Eagles are rolling, and Nick Foles is tossing magic dust on everything and everyone. Upset special.
Eagles 31, Saints 24
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