Another missed field goal played to the Saints' favor.
New Orleans was either going to play Philadelphia, a team it beat by 41 points, or Dallas, a team that handled the Saints in a way it hasn’t been handled in a long time. The Saints would have been favored in either game, but having the Eagles come to the Superdome for Sunday’s playoff game has to be considered the better of two outcomes.
Now, of course, all the qualifiers are required. These teams are different from the ones that played in November. The Saints offense peaked against Philadelphia and endured some struggles down the stretch but are rounding back to form. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. recently returned from injured reserve to assist with that task.
The most significant change for the Eagles since that 48-7 loss is that starting quarterback Carson Wentz has been lost to injury, which forced them to turn to Nick Foles. Some will argue that is a better outcome, and while Foles is the best Plan B in the NFL and very capable of winning on a big stage, losing Wentz does not make this team better.
The Eagles will also have running back Darren Sproles and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan this time, and tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson will be healthier than the the first meeting.
Here are three things that stand out about the rematch:
Philadelphia needs a new coverage plan
Many teams enter games determined to take Michael Thomas out of the game.
The amount of attention the Eagles paid to the wide receiver rivaled the amount of attention paid to him by any other team this season.
The idea wasn’t entirely misguided. In Week 11, New Orleans was struggling to identify viable options behind Thomas and eventually attempted to bring in other players to help shore up the spot, including Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant. The Eagles saw the same issue and decided to double-team Thomas on nearly every passing play.
On some plays, the safety simply shaded his direction, but on others, he was legitimately double-teamed, even on shallow crossing routes out of the slot. The coverage often left everyone else on an island to beat one-on-one coverage. The other receivers took advantage, starting with Tre’Quan Smith, who led the Saints with 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles often made things easy for Smith. He ran free underneath the coverage for a 22-yard reception because of the attention paid to Thomas on the far side of the field and then hit it again for a gain of 38 on another play.
Perhaps ironically, Smith’s touchdown came on a play where he took a substantial hit from a crashing safety after running by a cornerback. It was one of the only times during the game when he had to worry about a second defensive back being in his vicinity.
One of the more egregious examples of the Philadelphia defense focusing too much on one player came on a second-and-15 play in the first quarter when the deep safety crashed down to double Thomas on a crossing route, leaving the rest of the Saints in advantageous matchups. Dan Arnold, a converted wide receiver playing tight end, ended up being paired with a linebacker who he beat downfield for a gain of 23 yards.
Even with all that attention, Thomas still caught four passes for 92 yards.
The Eagles need to figure out another approach, because it didn’t work the first time, and the Saints now have Ginn on offense to help exploit mismatches. You can expect things will look different this time for both sides.
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Philly’s new offense
Cutting off the middle of the field had a lot to do with shutting down the Eagles offense.
New Orleans had a lot of success against Philadelphia, starting with taking Zach Ertz out of the game. The tight end, who finished the year with 116 catches for 1,163 yards, only had two catches for 15 yards against New Orleans. It was easily his worst game this season.
The Saints did not do anything exotic against Ertz. It was a relatively simple plan. A linebacker picked him up when he was lined up tight to the formation, and a strong safety often picked him when he moved to the slot. That’s it. The ability to cover a tight end who is such a threat in a passing game in this manner might be the most significant evidence of the improved play at linebacker this season.
This week might require a different approach. The Eagles played 72 percent of their snaps against the Saints out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), according to Sports Info Solutions. Over the final four weeks of the season, Philadelphia’s use of 11 personnel dropped to 48 percent, with the team running an even amount of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers).
So, the Eagles will likely do some different things to stress the middle of the field this time with rookie tight end Dallas Goedert becoming a bigger piece of the offense. And Foles will also probably try to do a little more outside of the numbers than Wentz did the first game.
Foles particularly likes to attack the right side of the field on passes outside of the numbers.
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Keeping quarterback Drew Brees clean will perhaps be the biggest challenge for the offense this week.
It will become an even taller task if any of the offensive linemen are out because of injury, but that situation will remain cloudy until New Orleans issues an injury report Wednesday.
Philadelphia had 44 sacks this season, though it did not have one against the Saints in Week 11 and barely generated pressure. That was a game Terron Armstead missed because of a pectoral injury.
Brees got the ball out in about an average of 2.4 seconds per play during the first meeting, which is in line with what is considered a normal range for him. If Philadelphia has coverage issues again, it won’t matter how good the pass rush is if players can get open.
Some of those issues will likely be cleaned up, and especially if there are injuries on the line, New Orleans will need to lean on its quick-passing offense to move the ball.
The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played the New Orleans Saints in Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the outcome was historic -- the worst loss by …