Jan. 6 update: The Saints will face the Eagles after Philadelphia stunned Chicago on Sunday.
The New Orleans Saints, in one of their most dominant performances of the season, manhandled the reigning Super Bowl champions once this season.
What is the best path for the Saints?
Who should you cheer for this weekend?
There are a lot of variables at play, but here's a look at what we think would be the best matchup for New Orleans during the next round of the playoffs.
No. 5 Seattle at No. 4 Dallas (7:15 p.m. Saturday, Fox)
The Cowboys would not be an easy matchup if they were to play the Saints again.
Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch can make things difficult for the Saints. They might be the only linebacker duo in league with the range and tackling ability to make things hard on Alvin Kamara. Dallas mixed in some safety coverage on Kamara earlier this year, but it was primarily the linebackers who kept him contained.
The Cowboys also did a good job of getting away with being physical against Michael Thomas and the other wide receivers. Dallas came up with what might have been the best game plan executed against the Saints in the past couple of seasons, which is a credit to their players and scheme.
But it is unlikely the Saints offense would be held to 10 points if this game were played again (assuming New Orleans has even a little luck with health on the offensive line).
Drew Brees and Sean Payton aren’t likely to be surprised by anything in a rematch, and the presence of Ted Ginn Jr. would help take advantage if Dallas tries to pay extra attention to Thomas. New Orleans would almost certainly come up with a plan that would generate more points than the first time.
But expectations are expectations. The Cowboys would probably expect to score more than 13 points, but this seems like the type of game that would favor New Orleans.
Dallas' offense runs through running back Ezekiel Elliott. Over the final six weeks, Elliott led the league in touches with 203. One of those games came against the Saints, during which the running back had 135 total yards on 29 touches.
Elliott only rushed for 75 yards on 23 carries, or 3.3 yards per attempt, against New Orleans. If the Saints could repeat that effort, and they should, it seems like things would fall in to place throughout the rest of the defense. The offense would just have to handle business.
Seattle isn’t that dissimilar from Dallas.
Led by Chris Carson, Seattle paced the NFL with 160 yards rushing per game. And, like the Cowboys, the Seahawks have a stingy defense.
The biggest difference between the two teams is their quarterbacks. Dallas’ Dak Prescott manages games and make some plays when needed, but he probably doesn’t scare a defense. If the choice is him or Elliott, you’re hoping to put the ball in Prescott’s hands.
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It’s not that easy against Seattle. Limit the running game and you have to deal with quarterback Russell Wilson. He wouldn’t be intimidated by the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and he’s the type of player who can get some magic going.
For that reason alone, the pick here from a Saints perspective is the Cowboys.
No. 6 Philadelphia at No. 3 Chicago (3:40 p.m. Sunday, NBC)
This game is interesting because, if the Saints have a fully healthy offensive line, then there could be some benefit if Chicago wins this game and then knocks off the Rams in the next round.
The Bears have an elite defense. But if the New Orleans offensive line is fully healthy, the Saints would be able to score on Chicago. It wouldn’t take many. Then, it just comes down to stopping the run on defense and forcing Mitchell Trubisky to beat you.
It wouldn't be easy, but if everyone is healthy, that type of game could favor the Saints.
The other thing to consider is if the Rams are going to bounce back after falling back to earth on offense late in the season. They haven't looked like the team that came to New Orleans earlier this season after losing wide receiver Cooper Kupp to injury. The Rams might be an easier game this time around.
But there are far too many variables involved in both of those hypotheticals. So the best thing would be for Philadelphia to upset Chicago and hop on a plane to New Orleans.
If this happens, there will be a lot of talk about how backup quarterback Nick Foles has recaptured the magic from last year when he led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title. All of that is fine and good, and belief is a powerful thing that can propel teams but make no mistake: Carson Wentz is a better quarterback.
That isn’t meant as a knock on Foles, who has looked good in leading Philadelphia to wins in four of its past five games. He’s completing 72 percent of his passes and has thrown seven touchdowns against four interceptions. As far as backups go, he’s as proven and reliable as they come.
The Eagles can win when everything goes right around him.
It’s doubtful he’ll find those circumstances against the Saints.
This would be a very winnable game for the hosts. The season finale against Washington aside, the Eagles have given up a lot of yards and points on defense during the second half of the season. The Saints haven’t been as sharp on offense since they beat the Eagles 48-7 earlier this season, but they’re sharp enough to handle business against a defense with a lot of flaws.
So even though there could be better hypotheticals down the road, the playoffs need to be handled one game at a time. Philadelphia looks very much like the best first step for the Saints.