|It's playoff time!|
Now that the NFL’s wildcard weekend is over, we know who the New Orleans Saints will play during next weekend’s divisional round. On Sunday afternoon, the Saints will host the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The winner will move on to play the winner of the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys game for the NFC championship. As we’ve done in years past, let’s look at both teams using Football Outsiders DVOA metric (for a reminder teams are measured in percentages with 0% as league average). Let’s start broadly and then move into more detail.
This will be the second matchup between the Saints and Eagles this season. In Week 11, New Orleans thoroughly dominated Philadelphia 48-7. Drew Brees threw for 363 yards and 4 touchdowns. Mark Ingram ran for 103 yards and two rushing TDs. The Saints defense held the Eagles to only 13 first downs and 196 total yards. Eagles QB Caron Wentz went 19-33 for 156 yards and 3 interceptions. New Orleans’ victory was one of their most impressive this season.
Based on this previous matchup as well as each teams’ overall performance this season, FiveThirtyEight gives the Saints a 64% chance of victory. Overall, the Saints enter the playoffs as not only the favorites to win the NFC, but the Super Bowl as well. Football Outsiders gives New Orleans a 25.5% chance of winning Super Bowl LIII. FiveThirtyEight is similarly bullish at 22%.
The Eagles, however, have made some significant changes since their Week 11 matchup. After the loss to the Saints, Philadelphia won 5 of its last 6 games and captured the NFC’s sixth seed. For the last three games, backup quarterback and last year’s Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles replaced an injured Wentz in the lineup. In three games against the Rams, Texans, and Washington, Foles nearly 77% of his passes (87-113) for 962 yards with six TDs and 3 INTs. Over those last three games, the Eagles scored 86 points while allowing only 53. They are the proverbial “hot” team entering the playoffs.
SAINTS ON OFFENSE vs. EAGLES ON DEFENSE
When the Saints are on offense, they have a clear advantage over the Eagles’ defense. Philadelphia had a league average defense and a secondary that has been ravaged by injuries. The Saints are well-equipped to exploit this mismatch. Philadelphia ranks 24th in DVOA against pass-catching running backs. In other words, look for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to dial up a healthy dose of short passes to running back Alvin Kamara. If the Eagles deploy extra players to take Kamara away, then the Saints are poised to take advantage of Philadelphia’s 15th ranked defense against No. 1 receivers and pass the ball to star wide receiver Michael Thomas. Additionally, the Eagles don’t generate much of a pass rush—22nd in adjusted sack rate—so Brees should have plenty of time in the pocket to find open receivers.
The strength of Philadelphia’s defense comes from their rush defense. The Eagles defensive line ranks sixth in adjusted line yards and second in the NFL at stopping opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Eagles have a good defensive line that is capable of stopping the run, but their linebackers are especially vulnerable—last in the league in terms of allowing rushes of 10+ yards. If New Orleans can wear down Philadelphia’s defensive line, they should be able to exploit the linebackers for big runs.
SAINTS ON DEFENSE vs. EAGLES ON OFFENSE
When the Eagles are on offense, things get a little more even. Philadelphia has an average offense overall with a good passing game dragged down by a poor running game. Unfortunately, the Saints strength is their run defense, but Philadelphia can’t run the ball effectively. So for Saints fans they’ll have to keep an eye on the passing game. Is Eagles quarterback Nick Foles getting enough time to find his receivers and take advantage of the Saints secondary?
That question will be answered in several areas of the field. First, the Saints rank 4thin adjusted sack rate and the pass rush led by Cam Jordan will be key in containing Foles. Philadelphia ranks 17th in adjusted sack rate, but their line has been playing better in recent weeks. If the New Orleans pass rush can get to Foles early and often, then the Eagles will be in trouble. If they can’t, then Foles will have time to pick apart the Saints secondary. The Saints cornerbacks, after being a strength of the defense last year, are a real weakness this season. Defensively New Orleans ranks 30th and 31st against No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers. They’re also 29th against pass-catching running backs. If Foles has time in the pocket to find his receivers, then this will be a competitive game.
The Saints have the edge in special teams. After some pitiful showings in recent years, New Orleans finished 9th in special teams DVOA. The strengths of the Saints special teams are their kicker Wil Lutz and punter Thomas Morstead. Lutz and Morestead were worth 6.8 and 5.3 expected points this year. Philadelphia’s special teams were average across the board—15th in DVOA—except for their punter Cameron Johnston, a former Australian football player. He added 6.4 expected points from his punting alone.
Sean Payton and Doug Pederson are well matched. Both are known as aggressive play-callers and are among the league leaders in going for it on fourth down. Don’t expect either team to play it safe during this game.
While the Eagles have been playing better since the 48-7 beatdown in Week 11, their path to victory is narrower than the Saints. Philadelphia needs the back end of their defense to hold up against the Saints passing attack. If they try to take away Kamara, then Brees will favor Michael Thomas and vice versa. The Eagles also need their offensive line to hold up against the New Orleans pass rush so that Foles can find his receivers. If they don’t, then the Eagles will be in for a long day.
New Orleans 38, Philadelphia 17