There isn’t much denying the fact that, at least for the latter part of the last two seasons, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has had “it.”
The New Orleans Saints (13-3) are looking to snatch it away Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when they play Philadelphia (10-7) in their NFC Divisional playoff game.
The Saints, the top-seeded playoff team in the NFC and owners of the best record in the NFL, beat the Eagles 48-7 in their regular-season meeting Nov. 18. Three games later, with the Eagles holding a 6-7 record and starting quarterback Carson Wentz headed to the sideline because of a fracture in his back, Foles again emerged as an offensive hero for Philadelphia.
In the final three games of this regular season – all victories by the Eagles – he completed 87 of 113 passes for 962 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions. Then in a 16-15 road victory in the Wild Card game against Chicago, he was 25 of 40 for 266 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions, last Sunday.
That follows the path he took last season, when he led the Eagles to victory in Super Bowl LII and was MVP of the game. Foles replaced the injured Wentz and started the final three regular-season games of 2017, completing 47 of 87 passes for 437 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. Then he lit it up in three playoff games – 77 of 106 for 971 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception.
New Orleans is seeking to brake the train.
“That Foles magic is real,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “He’s got this team playing really good right now.
“He gets the ball out of his hands, he’s not taking a lot of unnecessary hits, he’s got that offense moving at a great rhythm, great pace. For us as a defense, it’s just going to be being able to go out there and make it hard on him, take away his first and second reads, make him hold the ball until our pressure can get there.
“And being able to stop the run. Because not only do they have Foles back there, but we didn’t play (running back Darren) Sproles the first time. Sproles adds another element to that offense. We’ll have our work cut out for us but we’re looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s different. You just can’t get frustrated. You’ve got to continue to stay with the plan, continue to rush, continue to get after him because at some point, he’s going to have to pass, he’s going to have to hold it and when he does, you’ve got to be there to make those plays.”
First, though, the Saints are acutely aware of the speed with which Foles unleashes the football.
“Obviously, he’s good at getting the ball out quick,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “He’s a good game manager, he’s a good situational quarterback – you see him coming through on third downs, you see him coming through in clutch situations at the end of the game, at the end of the half. He’s a good, sound quarterback. That being said, we have to be a good, sound defense.”
For the Saints, that usually begins with stopping the run and forcing a team to be one-dimensional. New Orleans allowed 80.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season, second-fewest in the league, and 3.6 yards per carry.
The run-stopping was instrumental in putting New Orleans in position to record many of its 49 sacks, and the front knows that likely must continue in order to produce success Sunday.
“I wouldn’t say necessarily more pressure, because stopping the run is always the first step for the defense in general,” Davison said. “The first thing you’ve got to do is stop the run; otherwise, you’re going to have a rough day, no matter what else they do. So I think that pressure remains the same no matter what.
“But with that being said, we do know that it will help us going against a quarterback like him. He can go through a progression. On a third-and-short, he’s good at getting that ball out quick. We do have to keep in the back of our mind that we need to make sure we capitalize on these first and second downs in order to keep the offense at bay.”