Eagles vs. Saints odds, pick: Key matchups, how to watch, stream NFC Divisional Round game
Everything you need to know about Sunday's NFC divisional round matchup
The final game of divisional weekend is perhaps the most interesting. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles are traveling to New Orleans to take on the No. 1 seeded Saints, and the two teams' strengths match up incredibly well in order to set them each up for success.
The Saints were damn near unbeatable at home this season, racking up a 6-2 record at the SuperDome (with one loss being in the regular season finale where Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara didn't play), while the Eagles were only 4-4 away from Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles are coming off a road win in one of the least friendly environments in all of football, though, and it seems pretty safe to say they're comfortable playing playoff games pretty much anywhere at this point.
In the first matchup between these two teams, the Saints practically blew the Eagles off the field, winning 48-7 in a game that was somehow nowhere near as close as the final score. Eagles captain Malcolm Jenkins has referred to that game as the low-point of the team's season, but all the team has done since then is reel off six wins in seven games, with the lone loss being an overtime game against the division rival Cowboys on the road.
The Saints pretty much kept on rolling since that game, hitting a speed bump only against those same Cowboys. They even got their offense back on track by breaking out of a mini-slump with 31 points against the Steelers in the second-to-last week of the season.
So we've got two teams playing well, who both have playoff experience, and in a dome, which should make for a fun setting for two offenses capable of exploding. This should be a great game to watch (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox, stream on fuboTV, (try for free).
Eagles defense vs. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas
Last week, the Eagles were able to largely slow down a Chicago Bears passing game that is based on speed and getting the ball into playmakers' hands either extremely quickly upon the snap, or deep down the field. Mitchell Trubisky ended up 26 of 43 for 303 yards and a score, but he had multiple interceptions dropped or taken off the board on replay review, and he failed to connect consistently with anyone other than Allen Robinson. On throws to his other pass-catchers, Trubisky was just 16 of 30 for 160 yards. The Eagles held speedy playmakers like Taylor Gabriel to four catches for 37 yards on 10 targets, Tarik Cohen to three catches for 27 yards on five targets, and Anthony Miller to three catches for 34 yards on five targets.
This week against the Saints, the Philadelphia defense faces a different type of challenge. The New Orleans passing game is based around timing and precision, with Sean Payton scheming Drew Brees into wide-window throws more often than not, and with Brees relentlessly targeting his top options (Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara) whenever possible, but still proving able to beat you with "the other guys" when you devote too much of your coverage to shutting down the top playmakers.
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Nearly half of Brees' throws went to one of Thomas or Kamara, and he was remarkably efficient when targeting them, completing 85.6 percent of throws to Thomas and 77.9 percent to Kamara. He did not connect as often with his other receivers, but made up for it by gaining more yards per attempt and turning those plays into touchdowns with deep looks down the field.
Of Thomas' 147 targets this season, only nine of them came on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus. Granted, he caught seven of those nine balls for 246 yards and two scores, so when the Saints did take shots to him, he made the most of them; but for the most part Thomas worked as a short and intermediate target to help Brees matriculate the ball downfield. The same is true of Kamara, who had just two deep targets on 104 passes thrown in his direction.
Brees was 20 of 44 for 588 yards, six touchdowns, one interception, and a 122.2 passer rating on deep throws to everyone else. This is what we mean by making up for the relative lack of volume and efficiency by beating the defense downfield with big plays. But if you're going to get beat by anyone in the Saints' passing game, you certainly want it to be by the likes of Tre'Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Ted Ginn Jr., Ben Watson, Josh Hill, and Dan Arnold, rather than two of the best playmakers at their respective positions in the entire league.
The Philadelphia defense started the season getting destroyed through the air, repeatedly getting burned by double moves and deep passes. Eventually they solidified things on the back end with the group that has largely stuck around over the past six weeks or so. The Eagles have used six defensive backs on the majority of their plays in recent weeks, with safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Corey Graham joined by Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas, and Cre'Von LeBlanc, with Tre Sullivan roving around as well. Jenkins and Graham have been solid for the entire year, but the emergence of the Maddox-Douglas-LeBlanc trio on the perimeter is what has really been the key to the re-emergence of the Eagles' ability to stop the pass.
Since Week 12, that trio has allowed quarterbacks to complete 82 of 129 passes for 956 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions, per Pro Football Focus. That works out to a passer rating of just 84.0 -- well below this season's 92.9 league average mark. Maddox in particular has been excellent on the outside, allowing only 15 catches on 29 throws in his direction, for 241 yards, one score, and one pick. LeBlanc has largely manned the slot extremely well, ranking seventh in passer rating allowed out of the 21 players to play at least 115 slot snaps during that time.
The Saints like to move their receivers around all over the field, so the corners will each see a bit of Thomas on Sunday afternoon, and they could see Kamara as well. Kamara aligned in the backfield on 74 percent of passing plays, per PFF, he was in the slot 15 percent of the time and out wide in 11 percent of his passing snaps. He received 28 of his 104 targets when in the slot or out wide, so the Saints are not afraid to use him essentially as a wide receiver in order to get the matchup they like. (Usually, on a linebacker. But with the Eagles largely playing only one linebacker of late -- Nigel Bradham -- that may be more difficult than usual.)
Of course, in addition to Kamara's role in the passing game, the Eagles have to worry about him on the ground as well. Kamara was not quite as efficient running the ball this season as he was during his absurd rookie year, but he did still average an electric 4.6 yards per carry. He routinely broke tackles in the backfield and made something out of nothing, so even though Philadelphia stuffed more runs in the backfield than all but one other team (25.8 percent of opponent carries went for no gain or negative yardage, per Football Outsiders), they can't rest on their laurels there. Philly did tend to struggle when backs broke into the open field, ranking dead last in the NFL on open-field yards per carry. It will be extremely important to get multiple bodies to Kamara and ensure any gains he gets on the ground are limited.
Saints secondary vs. Nick Foles and the magic of Nick Foles
The magical ride of Nick Foles just keeps going, doesn't it? Foles was not perfect last week against the Chicago Bears, but then, who is? Against the best defense in football, Foles completed 25 of 37 passes for 266 yards, two scores, and two picks. He led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, moving the ball downfield against the league's best defense with relative ease. Sure, the Eagles needed Cody Parkey to double-doink a kick to escape with a win, but you take the wins you can get in the playoffs.
The test the Eagles' offense faces this week is not quite as difficult as the one they passed a week ago, but it's one that somehow may put even more pressure on Foles to be the reason his team wins the game. The Saints finished the regular season with the league's second-best run defense by yards allowed per carry, yielding only 3.6 yards a pop to enemy backs. With none of Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, or Darren Sproles necessarily looking likely to really pierce that tough defensive front (which also ranked third in overall run defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders), it would one again seem prudent to turn Foles loose through the air and hope he can recapture his magic against the New Orleans pass defense.
The Eagles' pass game with Foles at the helm looks slightly different than it does with Carson Wentz. Wentz is considerably more likely to throw either medium or deep than Foles, who prefers to work the short areas of the field while targeting only targeted deep shots.
On the season, the New Orleans pass defense was far better against short passes, against which they ranked ninth in DVOA, than deep ones, where they ranked 32nd. (Wentz was 0-5 with three interceptions on deep passes in the first meeting between these two teams, for what it's worth.) New Orleans allowed a 103.1 passer rating on deep throws against a league average of 97.0, per PFF, and was most often vulnerable over the deep middle of the field -- even though that was where all three of the aforementioned Wentz interceptions were thrown. Foles is just eight of 22 for 317 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on deep throws so far this year, and it's not all that likely that the Eagles will suddenly adjust their offense to take as many deep shots as possible -- one thing that has proven true during Doug Pederson's time working with Foles is that the team will almost always use the plays Foles is most comfortable with, and those plays only.
They are clearly his top two targets, and that was borne out last week when he targeted them with 14 of his 37 passes, or 38 percent. They caught 11 of those 14 passes for 134 of Foles' 266 passing yards, indicating that he was once again far more efficient when targeting them than when he targets his other receivers. (Foles was 14 of 23 for 132 yards, two scores, and two picks when throwing to Golden Tate, Nelson Agholor, Dallas Goedert, or one of his running backs.)
Since Foles returned to the lineup, the Eagles have largely operated out of 12 personnel, with one running back and two tight ends on the field. From Week 15 on, the Eagles used 12 personnel on 41 percent of their snaps, per PFF, far greater than the 16 percent league average this season. Using multiple tight ends allows them to work against heavier defensive formations but with players who have the size of tight ends and skill sets of receivers. Ertz and Goedert are terrific athletes with great route-running skills and fantastic hands, and they are able to make plays up the seam and stretch the defense vertically, which allows the Eagles to sneak Jeffery and Tate and Agholor and company underneath for the slants and crossing routes that Foles prefers to throw.
The Saints did not face much 12 personnel this season, but when they did, they often responded by blitzing slightly more often than usual. They had a 36.7 percent blitz rate against 12 personnel this season, per PFF, but those blitzes did not necessarily hit home that often. Sending five rushers instead of four raised New Orleans' pressure rate only from 33.4 percent to 34.8 percent, per PFF. They may decide that sending an extra rusher after Foles isn't worth it this weekend, especially considering how well Foles responded to the blitz during the regular season.
New Orleans is solid against slot wideouts (sixth in DVOA) and tight ends (fourth) should help against this particular version of the Eagles, but an increased role for Darren Sproles could help as the Saints ranked just 29th on throws to running backs. That's not necessarily an area that Foles excels, though, and moving Foles out of his comfort zone is not something Pederson has been all that willing to do.
Line: Saints -8
Prediction: Saints 30, Eagles 23
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