Divisional Preview: Philadelphia Eagles vs New Orleans Saints
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 12, 2007
This Saturday, the second game of the Divisional Playoffs will take place when the Philadelphia Eagles come in and battle the New Orleans Saints. Both teams have had fairytale stories this season, but one of them will have to end this week. For the Eagles, no one expected Jeff Garcia and the defense to fill in and make a postseason run when all hope seemed to be lost. For the Saints, Sean Payton has brought a franchise from the bottom to the top in his first year as head coach. The Saints are without question one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league, something people would never have expected. These two teams faced each other way back in Week 6, in a memorable game that the Saints won via a field goal at the last second. Who will come out on top this time around?
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Jeff Garcia: 17 of 31 for 153 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 sacks. 4 carries, 14 yards.
Note: Garcia didn't blow the Giants away with anything last week, and he was not on top of his game. That doesn't mean he wasn't effective though, because Garcia ended up managing the game beautifully. He didn't push anything past his limits when the Eagles starting to gain command of the game, and he was able to escape from pressure numerous times to make a first down play. The most impressive thing of all was his composure and ability to put the Eagles in field goal range so that David Akers could attempt a game-winner with no time left on the clock.
Drew Brees: 356 of 554 for 4418 yards, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 18 sacks.
Note: Garcia had one of the strongest performances among quarterbacks during the second half of the season, but Drew Brees may have been the most important quarterback for a team all season long. There are tons of elements that have brought the New Orleans Saints together as a winning team, but none of it would've been possible without an outstanding effort by the former Chargers quarterback. He has allowed guys like Devery Henderson and Terrance Copper to make big plays down the field, despite missing Joe Horn for nearly half the season.
Note: How many years is Brian Westbrook going to be considered one of the league's most underrated backs? The Eagles should prefer that title for him, because so far teams haven't been able to find a way to stop him from having success with the football in his hands. I was actually surprised with the lack of catches he had against the Giants, something I expect the Eagles do approach a little bit more against the Saints. Westbrook will do his damage in the open field, and that's exactly how he had his wild touchdown run last week.
Note: On the other side of the ball, the Saints have someone very similar to Westbrook, except that everyone knows about him. Reggie Bush has had a very flashy season, and ended up having a little more success as a receiver out of the backfield. How were the Saints able to get him 88 catches? When you have a guy like Deuce McAllister, who is still the team's starting running back, the versatility in the playbook is virtually unlimited. McAllister will see more action early in the game as the true running back, while Bush will be the threat through the air and the ground, especially on third downs.
Note: I was a little surprised to see the Eagles really only get the ball to their top two receivers last week, considering the success they've had with guys like Hank Baskett this season. Garcia hasn't had the greatest chemistry with his tight end Smith since he's taken over the Eagles, and I don't expect him to force anything if he's not comfortable with it. The Saints' secondary isn't going to get burned consistently, a reason they have the 3rd ranked pass defense in the league. The underneath routes may be there for Garcia, but there will be times where he'll get the man-to-man coverage he's looking for with a guy like Baskett down the field.
Note: When it comes to the Saints' receivers, anyone can step in and have a big game it seems. Although Copper has the least amount of playing time among the group, he was productive at a time that the Saints were missing their top two receivers in Colston and Horn. Colston is back and rolling again in his rookie season, but chances are that they will be without the veteran Horn again. That'll be a disappointment for the Saints, but they'll be able to compensate with big-play Devery Henderson. Henderson's average per catch this season is incredible at 23.3 yards a pop.
Note: The Eagles defense stepped up big time when McNabb was out with injury, and although the stat sheet doesn't show it from their game last week, they really stepped up in the first half of the game. The Giants had several straight drives in which they basically started near mid-field in the first quarter, and the Eagles defense was able to stop all of them. It had to be a little disheartening to give up a late touchdown to Plaxico Burress, but everything turns out fine if you get a win. The defense did suffer one major loss though, because starting cornerback Lito Shepphard will not play this week due to injury. That doesn't sound too good when you're going up against the Saints' offense.
Note: The Saints were elevated this season due to their offense, but it was also surprising that their defense played a little better than average. They didn't force a whole lot in the turnover department, especially in the secondary, but they've been a decent compliment to their offense. The most important men on the defense are defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Scott Fujita. Fujita has been a playmaker in the team's linebacking group, while Smith has a team-high 10.5 sacks.
Reno Mahe: 15.6 yards per kick return, 10.0 yards per punt return. David Akers: 3-of-3 in field goals, with a long of 48 yards.
Note: Mahe really hasn't been too much of a threat in the return game this season, something that the Eagles really lack. They can't say enough about their kicking game though, especially after David Akers was able to drill a game-winning field goal in the rain last week against the Giants.
Michael Lewis: 24.7 yards per kick return, 6.9 yards per punt return. John Carney: 23-of-25 in field goals, with a long of 51 yards.
Note: Michael Lewis will be returning kicks for the Saints, but I expect Reggie Bush to be the man taking punts back. They've had Lewis handle some of those duties, but Bush will only add another playmaking opportunity for them. Carney has been money this year, just like many of the other kickers involved in the postseason this year.
New Orleans Saints
Jeff Garcia hasn't had luck on his side: he's playing to the top of his abilities in a system that suits him well. The Eagles have to appreciate his veteranship, because a younger quarterback may have tried to force something that would've cost them the game against the Giants last week. The Saints' defensive line shouldn't be as quick as the Giants were, creating some more opportunities for Garcia to sit in the pocket if he wishes to.
The Eagles have a very underrated rushing attack, but going up against the Saints on the road in a possible shootout, I expect Westbrook to contribute more effectively as a receiver than an actual running back. Ideally, the Eagles would like to have the type of balance that they had last week. I simply don't see that happening in a high-scoring affair that will cause Philadelphia to move away from it being the focus point of the game early on. It will create some opportunities in the second half for some quick draw plays, though.
The Eagles will miss Lito Sheppard for sure, but then again, they haven't gotten here just because of him. Jeremiah Trotter has been extremely important in the center of that defense, just as Brian Dawkins has also been important in the secondary. The playmakers don't just end there, because people like Trent Cole, Darren Howard, and Darwin Walker can generate pressure up front with Jim Johnson's blitzing attack. With that said, not having Sheppard will certainly increase the Saints' willingness to go down the field in man-to-man coverages.
Drew Brees was a highly coveted quarterback in the offseason, but when he signed with the Saints, it seemed like a move that would take several years to work out. Instead, Brees' veteranship and ability to be an all-around quarterback has elevated the Saints to having perhaps the best offensive system in the NFL. Of course, head coach Sean Payton deserves a lot of credit for piecing everything together as well. Not having Joe Horn would be a bummer for the Saints, but as long as they have Marques Colston available, they'll be fine in terms of depth.
Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush have formed one of the best one-two punches in the NFL, primarily because the Saints have two starting caliber running backs with contrasting styles. The critical thing about the Saints running game is that both men are heavily involved in the gameplan - you won't see one or the other stashed away on the bench. That not only keeps defenses guessing, but it gives the Saints an opportunity to spell each of their respective backs whenever they feel it is necessary.
By the time things are all said and done, it could be the Saints defense that determines whether or not they are able to advance in the playoffs. If the game becomes a shootout, the Eagles will be the team with more postseason experience under Andy Reid. Experience can go a long way in the playoffs during crunch time, as we saw with some of the results from last week. Will Smith will be the guy the Saints need to try and get a push inside to make sure Garcia will not be able to sneak through the line and run for first downs.
NFC Divisional Prediction
Winner - New Orleans Saints
Of all the factors in this game, I'm a little concerned that the Saints are only 4-4 at home this season. Most times, you would expect more from a playoff team that had a first-round bye. Let's not forget the fact that the Saints and the Eagles already met this season actually, a game in which the Saints stunned everyone after Carney connected on a last-second field goal. If this comes down to a defensive battle, the Eagles will have the advantage. Unfortunately, I don't see Brees and the Saints' running backs being stopped at will very often. Final Score: Saints 34, Eagles 27.