Wild Card Weekend Preview: New Orleans @ Philadelphia

Eagles linebacker Trent Cole has made a career out of sacking opposing quarterbacks

The second wild card game that takes place this weekend is an NFC battle between the NFC east champion Eagles and the New Orleans Saints, who finished as runner up in the hotly contested NFC south. However despite Philly having homefield advantage over New Orleans in this one the Eagles (10-6) actually finished with a worse regular season record than the Saints (11-5). Both of these teams are known for their high powered offenses and have occasionally struggled on defense so it promises to be a high scoring encounter featuring two of the games hottest quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Nick Foles.

The Match-up

New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Lincoln Financial Field

8.10 PM (ET) Kick Off

When New Orleans has the ball..

Drew Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards this season, the fourth time he’s eclipsed that particular landmark during his career. To put that in perspective no quarterback in NFL history has passed that number more than once. The Saints running game isn’t as strong as it has been in previous seasons, however, and Pierre Thomas is the teams leading rusher with just 549 yards on the year so if the Saints are to put a crooked number up on the Philly defense it’ll have to be done on the back of the passing attack.

Tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham remains one of the biggest match-up nightmares in the NFL thanks to his speed/size combination and it’ll be interesting to see how Eagles inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks handles him in coverage. Kendricks was exceptional against Dallas last week and recorded a forced fumble and an interception; however Jason Witten enjoyed a big day hauling in 12 passes so that could be an area Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton look to exploit. Marques Colston has also enjoyed another consistent season for New Orleans, recording 75 catches for 943 yards and offering a handy compliment to Graham in the passing game.

The Philly defense is probably at it’s strongest on the defensive line although it struggles in the secondary, where the likes of Patrick Chung and Nate Allen have been picked on all season. Trent Cole came on strong late in the campaign and finished the year with 8 sacks after he’d struggled initially to adapt from playing defensive end in a 4-3 to playing outside linebacker in this year’s 3-4 alignment.

When Philadelphia has the ball..

Chip Kelly has taken the NFL by storm with his up-tempo ‘college offense’ this season, helping LeSean McCoy to set the franchise mark for yards from scrimmage with 2,146. Speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson also had a career season and totaled 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns through the air. Kelly’s offense is based around getting the ball to those play-makers in space and Nick Foles is the man at the controls after he stepped in for Michael Vick during the early part of the season. Foles has been a revelation, throwing 27 touchdowns (including tying the NFL record with 7 against Oakland in November) and just two interceptions and has impressed observers with his ability to play smart and protect the football.

One area of the Philly offense that hasn’t been perfected yet is the pass protection scheme and Foles has at times found himself under more pressure than he’d ideally like. Cameron Jordan leads a fierce Saints pass rush and the defensive end brought down opposing quarterbacks 12.5 times during the regular season, while Junior Galette also managed 12 sacks. Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton has played well in co-ordinator Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 scheme and he’ll have to be at the top of his game if he’s to keep McCoy in check. The battle in the trenches will be key, though, as Foles will fancy his chances of finding open receivers downfield if his lineman can keep him clean in the pocket.

Special Teams

Although both teams failed to run a punt or kick-off back for a score this season the Saints coverage units also shut out their opponents, while Philadelphia allowed two kick-offs and one punt to be returned for touchdowns. However two of those came in the ‘Snow Bowl’ game against Detroit in bizarre conditions so those figures should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

Eagles kicker Alex Henery had an up and down season and missed a third of his efforts from over 40 yards. While that’s a far from ideal record it’s still better than the Saints situation at the position as New Orleans were forced to cut ties with Garrett Hartley towards the end of the regular season and bring in veteran Shayne Graham. Neither Henery nor Graham inspire much confidence so it’ll be nerve wracking stuff if either has a chance to win the game in the closing minutes, especially with the game taking place outdoors in what will likely be frigid temperatures.

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