At the beginning of the season, I wrote that the Saints would be the Eagles’ biggest challenge in the NFC.
With a pair of dynamic running backs and a talented defense providing Drew Brees with the support that he’s lacked for much of his career, they were the most complete team with the best quarterback in the conference. Throughout the season, and after the 48-7 beat down in week 11, that was validated.
Statistically speaking, there aren’t a lot of reasons to like the Birds in this matchup. But statistically speaking, there weren’t a lot of reasons to like them last week in Chicago, or in last year’s NFC Championship against Minnesota.
Throughout our early season struggles, I harped on the fact that as long as you can still make the playoffs, all that matters is that you’re playing your best football in December & January—getting hot at the right time.
You can obviously describe the Eagles in those terms, but can we say the same about the Saints?
Not that the current level of play from New Orleans isn’t high, but their offense may have peaked at some point in the middle of the season. After averaging 37.8 points on 427.1 yards per game through the first eleven weeks, the Saints finished the final five matchups averaging just 22.4 points on 300.4 yards per game—that’s a significant drop off.
In the final five games (not including week 17) Drew Brees averaged just 195 passing yards on a meager 6.3 yards per attempt for a QB rating of 86.9. All of those numbers are obviously far below his averages through the first 10 games—295 yards, 8.7 yards per attempt, 125.0 QB rating—and far below what you would consider “high powered.”
On top of that, their running game has taken a small dip from averaging 4.2 yards per carry over the first eleven weeks to averaging just 4.0 to end the season. That isn’t a significant difference, but it serves to prove the point that their drop in efficiency through the air hasn’t been compensated for on the ground whatsoever.
And while the Saints’ pass protection has generally been impressive, they did allow the same number of sacks through those final five games as they did through the first eleven weeks. And that pressure resulted in Brees throwing five interceptions in five games, compared to the one he had thrown through week 11.
The Philly pass rush has found it’s juice late in the season, so if New Orleans isn’t buttoned up in protection then this could be a blueprint for victory.
That major drop in offensive production is underscored by the fact that they were only able to win one of those final five games by double-digits—something they had accomplished in six of their first nine wins.
The Saints may have been the best team in football for large portions of 2018, but they aren’t playing their best football right now.
The Eagles certainly won’t be able to get away with bad penalties, poor special teams, and a minus-2 turnover differential again, but the idea that this is a David vs. Goliath matchup is far from the reality.
If the Birds can go into the Superdome and play clean, ball-control football then they’ll find themselves in a close game in the 4th quarter—and if that’s the case, all pressure will be on a Saints team that seems as confident as can be.