The playoffs have arrived and dreams of hoisting the Lombardi trophy remain for just 12 teams. In essence the playoffs began last week for both the Saints and Eagles, as they faced win or go home situations. New Orleans pulled away from Tampa Bay in the second half to secure the final NFC playoff berth, while Philadelphia struggled in Dallas before a late game interception sealed the victory and the NFC East championship.
Now that the Saints and Eagles are in the tournament, the only remaining question is whether or not they can string together some victories and contend for a world title. New Orleans has a veteran quarterback and head coach that have proven they can win in the playoffs, combined with the fourth ranked defense in yards allowed, so they appear to have the pieces for a long playoff run. However, it will have to come exclusively on the road, a place the Saints have never won a playoff game. The Eagles have the NFL’s best running attack, a red hot quarterback and an opportunistic defense that make them a threat to win every game they play, but their head coach and quarterback have zero playoff experience to rely on and their greenness could cost them.
Most of the talk this week has centered around the Saints inability to perform on the road and the random interesting fact that both quarterbacks attended the same high school, but neither of those storylines will matter much after the game starts on Saturday night. What will matter and will determine which team advances is the performance of their stars and who prevails in these three key matchups.
Jimmy Graham vs. Mychal Kendricks
This isn’t to suggest that Philadelphia will use linebacker Mychal Kendricks exclusively to cover tight end Jimmy Graham, but he has been the player the Eagles use most often in coverage against tight ends and he will play a pivotal role in trying to contain Graham. The Saints’ tight end is a unique weapon that is quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite target. Graham was the highest graded overall tight end and his receiving grade was 6.9 points higher than his closest counterpart. He was targeted a team high 135 times, 20 more targets than the next closest tight end and 28 more than Marcus Colston, the only other Saint with more than 52 targets. Graham is a versatile weapon that can put a lot of stress on a defense; he led all tight ends with 2.26 yards per route run and was a dynamic vertical threat. He was targeted 18 times on passes thrown more than 20 yards down the field and turned five of them into touchdowns.
Although classified as a tight end, Graham lines up as a slot receiver 49.6% of the time and is moved throughout the formation, so Philadelphia will need to use multiple defenders. Kendricks will be heavily involved with trying to cover Graham and while he was lauded for his play making ability on the telecast last week, he was far from flawless in coverage. The play people will remember is his interception on a pass that could have been caught by Cowboys tight end, Jason Witten, but Witten caught every other pass thrown his way with Kendricks in coverage. In the last two weeks of the season Kendricks allowed tight ends to catch eight of the ten passes thrown to them while he was in coverage. For the season he ranks 54th out of 55 qualifying inside linebackers in coverage grade. It isn’t entirely bleak for Kendricks and the Eagles though; he has shown a rare ability to make plays and has been one of the most improved players during the season. After starting the year with four consecutive red graded games (lower than –1.0), he didn’t have another all season and had positive grades the last five games of the year. Other Philadelphia defenders that figure to be involved with covering Graham are outside linebacker, Connor Barwin, who ranked 13th in coverage for 3-4 OLB and safety, Nate Allen who ranked 51st in coverage. No matter who gets the bulk of the snaps against Graham, it will need to be a collective effort in containing him or he might take over the game.
LeSean McCoy vs. Saints Run Defense
Fresh off being crowned the NFL’s rushing champion and the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month, LeSean McCoy will need to keep rolling if the Eagles season is going to continue. The Saints and their eccentric defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will make stopping McCoy a priority and, although they ranked fourth in overall team defense, New Orleans ranked 19th allowing 111.6 yards per game on the ground. McCoy was the highest overall graded running back and his running grade of +27.5 was 12.4 points higher than the next back. He forced 57 missed tackles, helping lead to 748 yards after contact and finished sixth in our elusive rating for running backs. His elusiveness led to a league high 26 runs of 15 yards or more, many in highlight reel fashion. If the Eagles are able to go into the fourth quarter with the lead, McCoy can likely close it out as he becomes stronger as the season and game go on.
Rob Ryan is known for his wild behavior, unmatched confidence and unique blitz designs, but none of these will be much of an asset against McCoy. He will likely use an extra defender in the box and try to run blitz on early downs to try and stifle him. Compounding the problem for the Saints is that their best run defender in the secondary for most of the season was safety Kenny Vaccaro, who is out for the remainder of the year with an injury. Defensive end Akiem Hicks has been their best run defender up front and he will need to play his best game to disrupt the Eagles’ rushing attack. Inside linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton rank 28th and 30th respectively in run defense grade and Lofton has missed the third most tackles of all inside linebackers this year. They will both need to be better than that this week or McCoy and the inside zone running play will gash the Saints.
Cameron Jordan vs. Evan Mathis
A true strength on strength battle has Saints’ defensive End Cameron Jordan going up against Eagles guard Evan Mathis. Jordan was the fourth highest overall graded 3-4 defensive end and second best rushing the passer. Mathis for the third consecutive year was the highest graded guard and was pivotal in McCoy’s big year. New Orleans moves Jordan around the line but he most often plays on the right side, which will put him over Mathis most of the game. The former first round pick had a breakout year and finished with a positive grade for the first time in his career. He had 14 sacks and 76 total pressures on 525 pass rush snaps, ranking him behind only J.J. Watt in Pass Rush Productivity for 3-4 defensive ends. It will be vital for Jordan and the rest of the Saints’ pass rushers to get pressure without the aid of blitzing. Eagles’ quarterback, Nick Foles, has a QB rating of 132.0 when blitzed but his rating dips to 82.8 when pressured, thus making the ability to pressure him without blitzing imperative. The urge to blitz will probably overtake Ryan, but the Saints will be better off if they can generate pressure without it.
Mathis is part of an Eagles’ offensive line that has had the same starting five each game this year and has been utterly dominant at times, especially in the running game. While he was the highest graded run blocking guard, by a lot, Mathis did have some struggles protecting the passer this year. He allowed two sacks and 24 total pressures on 585 pass blocking plays, ranking him 15th in Pass Blocking Efficiency. He also had the fifth highest grade blocking on screen passes, something the Eagles utilize often. The screen game is also a great way to slow down a pass rush and 16.2% of Foles’ passing yards came on screen plays, the highest percentage in the league. Jordan will have a lot to compete with and a very tough task, but he will need to continue his breakout if the Saints are going to slow down the explosive Philadelphia offense.
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