(6) NEW ORLEANS (11-5) at (3) PHILADELPHIA (10-6): 8:10 p.m. ET, NBC
It’s been a bounceback year for the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints led on both sides by an innovative head coach and a dynamic offense.
Saints head coach Sean Payton returned from a one-year suspension and guided the team to four more victories from the previous season. Reunited with QB Drew Brees, the two picked up right where they left off and came within one game of securing the NFC South division title and a first-round bye
The difference between Seeds 2 and 6? A loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium, and a Panthers win over the Green & White at Carolina.
Meanwhile, by beating the Dallas Cowboys on the road Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles completed that cliché worst-to-first turnaround. Following a 4-12 season in 2012 under head coach Andy Reid’s 14th year with the club, the Birds took a gamble on then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly. Ten wins later, it’s “In Chip We Trust” in the City of Brotherly Love.
“I think it's the players and it's always the players,” Kelly said. “From the day I got here, I knew they were motivated to be successful and they work extremely hard and they own up when they make mistakes and they go out and correct those mistakes so they don't happen again. I think everything that we've done this year as a team is a direct reflection of those players.”
Nick Foles, entering the season as QB Michael Vick’s backup, appeared to be in line for a watch-and-learn second season. But opportunity knocked as the speedy lefty suffered a hamstring injury in Week 5, and Foles ran away with the job faster than, well, Vick himself.
Foles led the league with a 119.2 passer rating (yes, even surpassing Peyton Manning’s 115.1) thanks to 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. RB LeSean McCoy, meanwhile, led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards. It’s the first time in league history that the passing and rushing leaders have been from the same team.
Of course, giving credit for longevity and track record, it’d be difficult to argue that Foles is even the best quarterback from his own high school playing in Saturday night’s game. Foles and Brees both attended Westlake High in Austin, TX.
Brees surpassed the 5,000-yard mark for the third consecutive year, ending this season in second place with 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns through the air, trailing only Manning in both categories.
Said Payton: “His experience and his durability and all of those things are helpful not only for the head coach but I think the other players in the huddle on any given play. He is someone who is constantly reminding players about certain looks, check downs, what is going on right now at post practice. It is that veteran leadership, that consistency, all of those things are helpful.”
The Eagles have won 16 of the 28 games played between these two franchises all-time, including an 8-3 record at home. In the playoffs, however, the series is split, 1-1.
Most recently, New Orleans defeated the Birds in the Superdome on Jan. 13, 2007 in the NFC Divisional Round. To this day, Philadelphia fans will swear that RB Reggie Bush caught the ball and made a “football move” before CB Sheldon Brown came in with the crushing forced fumble. It was ruled an incomplete pass, however, and the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game with a 27-24 victory.
The Saints have played five postseason games on the road in their history. They’ve won zero.
“It’s the playoffs,” Payton said, “and I think the focus isn’t so much about road and home, this is the path. This is the schedule. The big thing as a coach is trying to cover every detail regarding your opponent, trying to cover the specific situations that can come up in a game, making sure you are prepared that way.”
The Green & White know what the Saints have to offer after seeing it firsthand Week 9. The Jets won 26-20 that day, but they also faced a New Orleans team playing without WR Marques Colston and, for the majority of the game, RB Darren Sproles. Looking to game-plan against those two players, Brees, and TE Jimmy Graham? Good luck.
Head coach Rex Ryan’s twin brother Rob Ryan’s job won’t be any easier though. As the Saints defensive coordinator, he’ll have to find a way to stop Foles, McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson.
When you watch the game, be sure to look for No. 16 on the Eagles – WR Brad Smith. Much like
He’s the only player in NFL history to score rushing, receiving, passing, kick return, and blocked punt return touchdowns.