The Philadelphia Eagles of January bear little resemblance to the Eagles of November.
Then, when the New Orleans Saints shellacked Philadelphia 48-7 on Nov. 18, the Eagles fell to 4-6 with their third loss in four games and three games later, after dropping to 6-7 with a loss to Dallas, they sat starting quarterback Carson Wentz with a fracture in his back.
For Sunday’s return appearance to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the No. 1 seed Saints (13-3), Philadelphia (11-7) is on a four-game winning streak behind quarterback Nick Foles, with victories over three division champions, including Sunday’s 16-15, Wild Card game road win against Chicago.
“Situationally, they’re playing well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They’re playing well in the red zone defensively and offensively. I think they’re a different team than we faced earlier in the year, a different quarterback is playing right now."
“There is a confidence that you see. The win on the road was a big win for them in L.A. (30-23 against the Rams), and then, you just go through the games and you go through the winning streak – and you’ve got Houston next (32-30), at Washington (24-0), at Chicago."
“They’ve kind of been in a playoff role going back to those games, needing to win to get in. So, it’s impressive.”
Foles, who was an offensive spark last year, has been no less so this season.
Last year, en route to being named MVP of Super Bowl LII, Foles again stepped in for the injured Wentz. He started the final three regular-season games (47 of 87 for 437 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions) and went on a tear in the three playoff games – 77 of 106 for 971 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception.
In the final three games of this regular season, Foles completed 87 of 113 passes for 962 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions, and then went 25 of 40 for 266 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions, against Chicago on Sunday.
“I think he’s done a great job within the framework of what they’re doing,” Payton said. “They’ve got very good weapons outside, a lot of different targets – the tight ends, the receivers. There’s a confidence level he has in operating in rhythm, spreading the ball around."
“He does a great job of beating pressure with the throw; yesterday, you saw him a handful of times with a free rusher coming in his face, make some throws outside the numbers that were real impressive."
“He’s one of those players that’s playing with great rhythm and there’s a calmness when you watch him play that we all see.”
The Saints have faced Foles in the playoffs before, in the 2013 Wild Card game. New Orleans posted the first road playoff victory in franchise history with a 26-24 win on Jan. 4, 2014. Foles, who threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions during the ’13 regular season, had two touchdowns but was held to 195 yards on 23 completions by the Saints in the playoff game.
Defensively, too, Payton said that the Eagles are improved since allowing 546 yards and six touchdowns to the Saints. Drew Brees completed 22 of 30 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions and he wasn’t sacked.
“Our league is game to game and one of the things that you know going in is going to be pass rush, pass protection,” he said. “They’ve got a dynamic rush front. (Safety) Malcolm (Jenkins), the secondary, they’re very smart players. This is a group – this is the Super Bowl champion."
“You have a game and it’s over with, and now you’re on to the next game and obviously, this is the most important one. But I would say they’re ability to get after the quarterback and make him throw it earlier than you want to is something they’ve done very well.”
As for the Saints, they also have changed a bit. They haven’t topped 31 points on offense since the Eagles game, but still they won four of their final six games and allowed 17 or less points in four straight games.
“Hopefully, we’re further down the road and more experienced relative to the games we’ve played in since then,” Payton said. “We’re looking forward to having a good week of practice, studying the film, paying close attention to all the things that have taken place between that last game and now and even back further. That’s the great thing about this tournament. You get a chance to play and advance and you understand the sense of urgency.”
THE SPROLES EFFECT: Eagles running back Darren Sproles is rounding back into form after missing the majority of the season with an injury. In six regular-season games, he had 29 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown, 15 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, 10 punt returns for 83 yards and a kickoff return for two yards. But few know better than the Saints how much of a factor Sproles, a former Saint, can be.
In three seasons with New Orleans (2011-13), Sproles had 188 carries for 1,067 yards and five touchdowns, 232 catches for 1,981 yards and 16 scores, 81 punt returns for 671 yards and a touchdown, and 79 kickoff returns for 1,827 yards.
“He’s doing so much for them,” Payton said. “You see him punt returning, you see him getting handoffs, releasing into routes. He’s a very, very smart player. That’s one of his great traits, along with his ability. So, rarely does he do something to surprise you. He makes for a clean target for the quarterback. He’s able to release against zone or man, react accordingly. He’s got very good elusiveness and quickness, he’s done a good job with their draws and their one-back run schemes. And then obviously, he’s a dangerous punt returner. Someone who’s a very special player.”