NBC’s final NFL telecast of the season will be Saturday night’s New Orleans-Philadelphia playoff game (8:10 PM ET). As we say goodbye to Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth—for better or for worse—let’s review the nine key points to take into the prime-time battle in Philly…
- *New Orleans bad reputation on the road is well-documented, as is the fact they have never won a road playoff game in their history. Let’s not forget that in 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had never won a cold-weather playoff game when they arrived in Philly for the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs of Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Jon Gruden put a 27-10 smackdown on the Eagles and went on to win the Super Bowl.
- *It’s the third playoff meeting for these teams, but the first time it takes place outside the climate-controlled comfort of the New Orleans Superdome. Back in 1992, the Eagles went to the Bayou and rolled out with a shockingly easy 36-20 win. The Saints won a closely contested battle in 2006. Each time, the winner lost the ensuing game.
- *Philadelphia is a narrow 2 ½ point favorite. That would indicate New Orleans is seen as narrowly better, with the Birds being given three points for homefield. I did think that the nuances of this particular matchup would lead to more homefield credit in the number. The Over/Under is 54, so combined that would create a result of the Eagles winning 28-26.
- *New Orleans has the reputation for the explosive offense, but Chip Kelly has turned the Eagles into a point machine. While both offense are good, Philadelphia ranks 4th in the NFL in points scored, while San Francisco ranks 10th. While some of that is undoubtedly due to the Eagles playing in the weak NFC East, don’t forget that Philly had to play all four AFC West teams, the division that swept both wild-cards on the opposite side of the NFL.
- *Turnovers often decide NFL playoff games and both the Eagles and Saints excel at taking care of the ball, tying for second in the NFC for fewest giveaways. The difference is on the opposite side of the ball. Rob Ryan’s more aggressive approach in New Orleans might have improved the overall performance, but the Saints do not take the football way. Philadelphia, by contrast is as good at getting the turnover as they are at avoiding it.
- *There’s more to big plays on defense that just turnovers though. There’s also sacks, and here’s where Ryan’s approach has produced positive fruit. New Orleans is 4th in the league in sacks, while Philadelphia is 20th. The Eagles can’t let Drew Brees sit back and pick them apart. The player to watch is 31-year-old outside linebacker Trent Cole. In his younger days, he was one of the league’s better pass rushers and he needs to find the fountain of youth by Saturday night.
- *Philadelphia has the running game that New Orleans does not. LeSean McCoy won the rushing title this season and deserves to at least be in the top three of the final MVP voting. The Saints have no running game and Pierre Thomas is dealing with a chest injury on top of it. That projected final score of 28-26 is just a betting number, but if it plays out that way it means Philly finishes drives with touchdowns and New Orleans settles for field goals. The running game difference would be the reason why.
- *Nick Foles has a dazzling 27/2 TD-INT ratio for Philadelphia, but the offense did not play well in the second half of last week’s win-or-go-home game in Dallas. Furthermore, Foles ranks in the middle of the league in completion percentage. The Philadelphia passing game relies on big plays to DeSean Jackson to support the run. New Orleans pass coverage excels at stopping the big play.
- *If New Orleans is going to end their road drought—which certainly applies to this year, including a crushing loss at Carolina, a beatdown at Seattle and a terrible showing in St. Louis, all since the month of December—then the Saints need to stop the run. Not just against this particular opponent but against anybody. New Orleans rush defense is 28th in the NFL.
I’m taking Philadelphia to win. I had been a New Orleans believer early in the year and would have taken them to win the Super Bowl had they won the NFC South and gotten the #2 seed. But the constant road losses just can’t be ignored anymore. One day the Saints will win a road playoff game—heck, maybe that day will be January 4, 2014. But I won’t be the one picking it in advance.