It’s no secret that the NFC was loaded last season and will be even more loaded this year. There are more legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the conference than there are playoff spots—the Eagles, Packers, Vikings, Rams, Saints, Falcons, and Panthers all have a real shot at winning the NFC.
If you ask around, the general consensus seems to be that the Rams are the biggest threat to the Eagles, and understandably so. The Rams were viewed as that team for most of last season, and have only added onto a young and talented roster over the offseason.
But if you ask me, I think the biggest potential threat to the Eagles in the NFC are the Saints.
1. Drew Brees
Look, I like Jared Goff, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and even Kirk Cousins. But nobody would mistake any of these guys for being “elite,” and they certainly aren’t future first-ballot Hall of Famers.
I realize Brees’ arm strength isn’t what it used to be, but truth be told, arm strength was never his calling card. He still has enough power to drive the ball up the seam, and his deep ball placement and anticipation are still elite. In terms of pre-snap ability, Brees is obviously much better than any of the aforementioned NFC QBs, and that trait isn’t going anywhere.
Any notion that Brees has lost a step is misgiven; he was 2nd in the league in quarterback rating last year. The fact that he actually has a running game for once will only help his longevity and ability to stay healthy.
After Rodgers, Brees is the only quarterback out of the NFC contenders that could outplay a healthy Wentz in the playoffs—nobody should have that concern about Jared Goff.
2. Most dangerous running game in the NFC
For the previous few years, the Saints lacked a running game or offensive line to adequately support their H.O.F. quarterback. That isn’t the case anymore.
Mark Ingram, health permitting, is a top-10 back in the league; and Alvin Kamara is the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Both players are coming off a season in which they each amassed 1,500 total yards from scrimmage, and they’ll once again be running behind a top-5 offensive line.
I realize the Rams have Todd Gurley, but there’s added value in having two capable studs in the backfield. Beyond that, nobody would mistake the Rams aging offensive line with the Saints dominance up front.
After the Rams, the Falcons are the only team with a running game worthy of concern at this level. However, I don’t think the Falcons quite stack up with New Orleans outside of having an equally explosive offense.
Alvin Kamara averaged a league-leading 6.1 yards per carry last season while also recording over 81 catches for 826 yards. He may be young, but he’s the type of dynamic offensive weapon that can wreck games against even the most buttoned up of defenses.
3. Top-end pass rushers to complement arguably the league’s best secondary
The Saints quietly have one of the best pass defenses in football. All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan is coming off the best season of his career, as he recorded 13 sacks and was rated the 3rd best edge defender in football (pro football focus). They also used their first round pick on a pass-rusher in Marcus Davenport, and brought back Alex Okafor in free agency (rated 28th by pro football focus).
Beyond a top-flight tandem of rushers off the edge, the Saints boast arguably the most talented young secondary in football. Marshon Lattimore is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and is already a lock down corner who erases his side of the field.
And had it not been for Lattimore, it’s likely that safety Marcus Williams (also entering his second season) would have been named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Williams is better known for allowing Stefon Diggs game-winning touchdown in last year’s collapse in the divisional round vs Minnesota. He understandably took a lot of heat for that mistake, but that one play aside, Williams is already one of the best safeties in football (ranked 6th by PFF).
On top of those two young pieces, the Saints brought in former Eagle Patrick Robinson to fill in at nickel corner. I shouldn’t have to explain to Philly fans the type of impact Robinson can have in that role.
Between all the talent in the secondary, their defensive line generating pressure, and the Superdome being a tough place to play, it’s hard to imagine a more adverse set of circumstances for a quarterback to face than what New Orleans will throw at you. If there’s one defense that is capable of stifling a healthy Wentz, it’s this one, not the Vikings or Rams.
4. Out of the NFC contenders, the Superdome provides the biggest potential home-field advantage (after the Linc)
I don’t think the Eagles would have made the Super Bowl without the advantage of playing every game at the Linc. Home-field advantage is without a doubt an active factor in the NFL, and let’s be real, I don’t think any reasonable fan is afraid of playing in Los Angeles—you would be foolish to mistake what they have as an advantage.
Our week 14 matchup with the Rams last season was a quasi-home game despite it being played 2,700 miles from Philadelphia. I would expect a more Ram-heavy crowd in a hypothetical playoff matchup, but the LA Coliseum wouldn’t suddenly become a 12th man by any means.
Compare that with the advantage the Saints have in the Superdome and the difference is stark. In terms of demeanor, the New Orleans fan base is much closer to Philly fans than they are to the fair-weathered group out in LA, and the dome obviously amplifies the noise they create. (Imagine if the Linc had a roof)
5. Championship pedigree
Out of all the teams to be considered here, there are only two coach/quarterback combinations with Super Bowl winning experience: the Saints and the Packers.
Is Super Bowl “pedigree” the end-all be-all? Not at all, but it’s a pretty good indicator of a team’s propensity to not shrink under the lights. Just as the Rams did against Atlanta last January, as the Vikings arguably did at home in the NFC championship game, and as Atlanta did in the 2017 Super Bowl.
In short, if we faced the Saints in the playoffs, we can expect to get their best effort.
6. Sean Payton is one of the best head coaches in football
I get the hype around Sean McVay. I don’t think he’s overrated like most Eagle fans seem to, and I think he’ll be a head coach in this league for 30 years. But as of now, Sean Payton’s proven track record gives me more concern.
Last season he orchestrated an offense that produced two running backs who individually totaled 1,500 yards from scrimmage on top of Brees’ 4,334 passing yards—solidifying his status as one of best offensive minds in the game.
If you asked me which NFC head coach I would rather have leading my team, I’m not sure you could argue anyone other than Sean Payton.
The tandem of Drew Brees and Sean Payton are 2-0 against the Eagles in the playoffs—winning at home in a 2007 Divisional Round game, and at the Linc in the 2014 Wild Card game. Can you say that about any other team in the NFC?
I realize the Packers satisfy most of these criteria, but I don’t think their defense stands a chance at slowing us down. As far as the Rams go, I will always take Pederson and Wentz over McVay and Goff — I’m not sure I can say the same about the Payton/Brees combo.
The Eagles will rightfully be favored to win the NFC, but if there’s a team we should be concerned about, it’s the Saints.