Sorry, couldn't resist. Anyway, here we are with the postseason and the Saints are in it! Nice! Now we have to go on the road and beat the Eagles in miserable temperatures. This is the third time the two franchises have faced off in the playoffs, and they are 1-1 against each other, though both games were played in New Orleans. The Saints will be looking to win their first ever road playoff game in team history. Here's five things I'll be looking for:
1. Can the Saints manage focusing on both LeSean McCoy at the line of scrimmage and DeSean Jackson deep?
The Eagles are the #2 offense in the NFL. That alone should scare you. And while the Saints are fourth on defense, it's not a good matchup because the Eagles are so explosive in a variety of ways. If there's one thing the Saints haven't done well, it's stopping the run, and the Eagles lead the league in rushing. The Eagles' offense is multiple and the Saints' defense, especially without Vaccaro, is a bit one dimensional. McCoy is a major threat to the Saints defense and without Kenny Vaccaro, arguably the team's best second level run stopper, it makes the job even more difficult. Problem is, if you focus too much on McCoy, DeSean Jackson is a huge deep threat. And with Malcolm Jenkins at free safety, I'm not feeling too good about the implications. So managing the focus on McCoy with the field stretching ability of Jackson is going to be very hard on the defense. It would be a tough assignment no matter what, but it's made worse now that Vaccaro isn't in the lineup. It would be a good time for Malcolm Jenkins to play out of his mind and for Akiem Hicks to eat the run blocking alive. Rafael Bush is probably the free safety, and Jenkins the nickel, in 3 receiver sets… so Bush will have to do a good job on the back end, too, and Jenkins will get some opportunities around the line of scrimmage to help slow down McCoy. It boils down to tackling well, too.
2. Can the offensive line hold up, particularly in pass protection?
The Eagles aren't a huge sack threat other than Trent Cole, and the Eagles are 32nd in the NFL in pass defense so Brees should be able to throw on them all day. But the offensive line has been a dumpster fire on the road. They don't pick up blitz assignments, they have tons of penalties, and they get Brees hit tons. Now the competition they've faced in the Rams, Seahawks, Panthers and Jets is more formidable without question. This Eagles' front is not in the same league with the fronts I just mentioned. Still, the one major advantage the Saints have over the Eagles is the ability to pass on them, but that only rings true of the offensive line can have a good game in pass protection. Can they deal with crowd noise better this week?
3. Are Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham in playoff form?
The only way the Saints make any kind of run in these playoffs is if Drew Brees goes nuts. He's going to have to be borderline super human. But before I act all "he's got to throw for 400 yards and 5 touchdowns", it also means he needs to make zero mistakes. Having no turnovers, delay of game penalties, burned timeouts etc… is critical. As we saw against Carolina in the most unfortunate road loss this season, you just can't survive bad turnovers. It prevents you from winning games you should have won. So as much as I'd love to see the Brees that went off against Tampa in surgical fashion, I'd live with a 220 yard passing efficient performance that's completely mistake free. The bottom line is the Saints' horses these days are Brees and Graham. They are the team superstars. If this team has any shot, it's because of those two. Philly has no answer for Jimmy Graham, and no real way to cover him based on the players they have defensively. Unless they put Brandon Boykin on him, which would likely be a death sentence with Colston. Brees and Graham have to step up and carry the team to victory if a playoff game win on the road is going to happen.
4. Can Cam Jordan win his matchup against Lane Johnson?
Lane Johnson is a rookie 1st round pick that has had an up and down season. When he was blocking the blindside of Michael Vick (Vick is left handed), his pass protection was positively atrocious and he almost got Vick killed. He was giving up multiple hits and sacks each week. Since Nick Foles has come in, though, Johnson's job has gotten easier. Foles gets the ball out much faster, and Johnson at right tackle is no longer blocking the blind side. His play has improved as the season wore on because he's gotten more acclimated to life in the NFL, but also because Foles came in for Vick. Still, he's a rookie and he's probably the biggest weakness on the Eagles' offense. He's got a lot of talent, so it's not like he's terrible, but he's also not fully rounded yet. It just so happens the Saints' best defensive player is Cam Jordan, he plays left end, and he'll be lined up against Johnson. So that matchup is a huge lean for the Saints, if Jordan can exhibit the form he's had all season. That's a matchup up the Saints have to take advantage of. I expect the Eagles to chip and double a good bit to help Johnson, which could leave Junior Galette on an island on the other side and give him opportunities too. But when they don't chip or double, Jordan has to expose that advantage and make the Eagles pay.
5. Do the road woes disappear?
At this point I can't even pinpoint the issues. Obviously it's easier to play at home than it is on the road, this is true for any NFL team. But the Saints are superhuman in the Dome and flat out really bad away from it. The juxtaposition for the Saints is enhanced compared to every other team for some reason. It's not even really a weather or a Dome thing at this point, based on what we saw at St. Louis. This is the final chance this season to prove the media pundits and the team's history wrong.