To say the New Orleans Saints are ready to play Sunday’s NFC Divisional game against Philadelphia in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome would be an understatement.
Sure, New Orleans (13-3) welcomed the rest and recovery period earned via the No. 1 seed, and the opportunity to self-scout – to get back to basics and clean up areas that could use a little polish – never is a bad thing.
But the Saints are ready to roll, and they’ll have to be because Philadelphia (10-7) is as hot and as formidable as any remaining team. The Eagles have won four straight and now bear a strong resemblance to the team that won Super Bowl LII last season. New Orleans has an opportunity to end the reign, and begin its run.
A few areas worth monitoring Sunday afternoon:
- The Saints’ offense wasn’t broken at the end of the regular season, but obviously, it wasn’t clicking. In the four games prior to the finale – I’m not counting that one – the Saints averaged 20.3 points and scored one touchdown in two of those games. In the first 11 games, the unit had six 40-point scoring games. Did opposing defenses catch up? They played some talented ones during the stretch, so the question is whether the tweaks and corrections made during the off week will get the Saints back on track. I’m thinking they will. The Eagle defense won’t resemble the one that was humiliated in a 48-7 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 18, but that doesn’t mean the Saints can’t again take advantage of some of the schemes and personnel. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram should be operating behind a relatively healthy offensive line and when that has been the case, the Saints offense has been able to shine. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. may add some extra punch, too (he missed the first game).
- Not that more evidence was needed, but in case there were remaining non-believers, the short version is this: Nick Foles is no joke. He has picked up this season where he left off last season, when he came off the bench and had a prolific three-game playoff performance en route to winning Super Bowl MVP (77 of 106 for 971 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception). In Philly’s last four games this season, Foles has again come off the bench to complete 112 of 153 passes for 1,228 yards and eight touchdowns, with five interceptions. In the Wild Card victory against Chicago’s vaunted defense, he completed 25 of 40 for 266 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception. Foles quickly decides and throws, so sack opportunities may not be plentiful. If Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan (12 sacks) and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (eight sacks) can’t lead the charge in getting to Foles that way, they at least have to stay in his face, apply as much pressure as possible and, hopefully, get their hand on a throw or two. Rankins against Eagles center Jason Kelce will be worth watching.
- If Foles is throwing, he’ll be targeting tight end Zach Ertz and receiver Alshon Jeffery. The Saints held each in check in November – Jeffery caught four passes for 33 yards, Ertz caught two for 15 – but that’s not a realistic expectation for the rematch. Plus, receiver Golden Tate is rounding into the offense. The Saints’ secondary has had growing pains this season, but it steadied down the stretch and produced some outstanding play. Foles has five interceptions in the last four games, including two last week. The opportunities presented must be seized. Coverage also will be key to pressure because tight coverage may force Foles to hold the ball one or two extra counts, and that may be enough to compile enough hits to get him off rhythm.
- Everything in the playoffs is magnified, including special teams. Punt coverage will be key because former Saint Darren Sproles just might want to test his old team, and the return game also could be used to provide a boost for New Orleans. Kamara or Tommylee Lewis can juice the team and Superdome with a timely kickoff or punt return. Keep in mind, too, that the Saints blocked two punts this season and linebacker Craig Robertson snuffed out a fake field goal and a fake punt.
- We know the Superdome will be loud. It’s the Saints’ job to keep it lit. If New Orleans jumps out early, the crowd will supply the rest of the energy.