Among the things that the New Orleans Saints have proven this season, perhaps chief among them is this: Success has not gone to their head. Fresh off a signature, 45-35 victory over the Rams that gave Los Angeles its first loss of the season, the Saints constructed a 51-14 masterpiece on the road against Cincinnati, their most complete game of the season.
So the safe assumption is that the Saints (8-1), winners of eight straight, will be ready for the Philadelphia Eagles (4-5) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They'd better be. The Eagles have struggled this season, but they still are the reigning Super Bowl champions and many of the players on the field will be the ones who helped defeat New England for the Lombardi Trophy. And Philly is desperate.
The Saints know they have a huge challenge ahead. Success in a few of these areas might help them achieve the desired result:
- The Saints still lead the league in run defense (80.1 yards allowed, 3.7 yards per carry) and it begins defensively with making opponents one-dimensional. Linebackers Demario Davis, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone have been spectacular this season and they'll need to be again as they anchor the defense against Philly's run game (102.7 yards per game, 4.1 yards per carry). Eagles running back Darren Sproles won't be available to torment against his former team, so that will make life a bit easier. But this is no time to exhale. The Eagles still will want to balance their offense with the run.
- In six of the last eight games, New Orleans has recorded at least three sacks. Watch defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (five sacks) and defensive end Cam Jordan (six sacks) work the middle and the edge; they're among the best in the business at what they do. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has been sacked 23 times in seven games, more than three per game. He's big and strong, and he'll hold on to the ball and attempt to shake off pass rushers in order to make a play. And he's good – 71 percent completions, 15 touchdowns, only three interceptions, and 2,148 passing yards. The Saints will have their opportunities. When they get them, they have to get Wentz on the ground.
- Another week, another formidable defensive line for the Saints to face. This time, though, it will do so without left tackle Terron Armstead, who was playing at an All-Pro level. But this isn't Jermon Bushrod's first rodeo; he started 62 games at left tackle for the Saints from 2009-12, and he filled in admirably against the Bengals when Armstead left the game early in the second quarter. He and his line mates will be kept on their toes by the likes of Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett (5.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (four sacks). Cox flat-out manhandled the Saints' offensive interior in a 2015 game, with three sacks and two forced fumbles. This line isn't that line. It hopes to be better equipped to deal with him.
- I don't know if Brandon Marshall will play, or how much he'll play if he does. But whenever he does, he's a 6-foot-5, 232-pound receiver. That's an inviting target for the Saints to put on the field opposite Michael Thomas and no one – no one – better identifies and takes advantage of mismatches than Drew Brees (77.3 percent completion rate, 21 touchdowns, one interception, 2,601 passing yards). The Eagles allow 266 passing yards per game and only have four interceptions, while allowing opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes. And they lost cornerback Ronald Darby for the rest of the season.
- In the four games prior to Mark Ingram's return from suspension, the Saints ran for 104.5 yards per game (24.8 carries, 4.4 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. In the five games since he returned, it's 144.6 yards per game (36.2 carries, 4 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. The increase isn't entirely attributable to Ingram's return, but it does quantify how the Saints have gotten back the balance that they achieved last season. Opponents only attempt 19.8 rushes per game against Philly, but they average 4.7 yards per carry. The Saints have to like that per-carry average against the Eagles, and they'll look to test them to see how they hold up.