After experiencing a year of setbacks in 2012 – mostly due to the penalties as a result of the bounty scandal – the New Orleans Saints started the 2013 NFL campaign strong. Even after a stunning last-second loss to New England in Week 6 and a perplexing defeat at the hands of the Jets in Week 9, the Saints were still in-line for at least a first round bye heading to Seattle in Week 13.
However, after getting drubbed by the Seahawks and experiencing the reality of the 12th man, the wheels came off a little. Late losses within the division to St. Louis and Carolina ceded the division to the Panthers and has forced Drew Brees and company to pave their way to the Super Bowl exclusively on the road.
They will begin that journey on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. Chip Kelly has come in and changed a football culture that seemed to have grown stale after so many years of Andy Reid. Nick Foles somehow looks like a potential franchise quarterback, Shady McCoy is the best running back playing in the playoffs (with all due respect to Jamaal Charles), and their defense is opportunistic, if not stout.
Many have been quick to point out how healthy they are heading into the playoffs – perhaps as a result of Kelly’s new nutrition and practice program he brought from college.
So who has the edge?
If this game was being played in the Superdome, I would imagine the Saints would be favored by double digits. On paper, they have an advantage in almost every key area. For example, although the Eagles offense ranked slightly higher than the Saints during the regular season (2nd and 4th, respectively), the edge on that side of the ball has to go to Drew Brees and Sean Payton over Foles and Kelly. They have more experience in both the regular season and the playoffs, and the weapons at Brees’ disposal are just as explosive as McCoy and DeSean Jackson. The Eagles are sure to have fits with Jimmy Graham alone.
Defensively, the Saints had a complete 180 from last year. They finished 4th in total defense under newly hired Rob Ryan after having a historically bad unit in 2012. And while the Eagles had moments of resiliency, they finished 29th in total defense and are prone to giving up big plays.
Coaching-wise, Kelly has been a revelation. However, Payton has won a Super Bowl, and as last year proved, he might be as important to his team as anyone not named Bill Belichick. It appears as though Kelly will be around for a while, and he has had a great start; but coaching in January with grown men is different than with teenagers.
The catch with all of this is that the game isn’t being played in the Superdome. It’s being played in Philadelphia, where the weather will be cold (the forecast calls for clear skies but temperatures in the low 20’s) and the fans will be aggressive.
Can the Saints do what they couldn’t in Seattle? What they couldn’t in New England, New York, St. Louis, or Carolina?
While I think this will be a competitive game because it’s a home game for the Eagles, the edge has to go the Saints. If their defense is able to slow down Foles, McCoy, and Jackson, Brees should be able to put enough points on the board to come out of Philadelphia with a victory.