Top storyline: Saints seek to reverse recent road woes
For the last month or so, the New Orleans Saints have heard all they wanted to hear — and then some — about how they can’t win on the road.
Yet they failed to stop all the talk when they couldn’t get it done in Seattle; St. Louis; and Charlotte, N.C. Before that, it was East Rutherford, N.J., and Foxborough, Mass.
But now, they have a chance to do something about it with a lot on the line: an opportunity to take another step deeper in the playoffs and earn a spot in next weekend’s divisional round.
In the past three months, they’re just 1-5 on the road. But a win Saturday night in the wild-card playoff game with the Philadelphia Eagles will temporarily quiet the critics who claim they’re only as good as the climate-controlled environment they play in at home.
The Saints have tried to deflect all the negative talk this week, changing up the routine as a bit of a psychological twist, if you will, to get the players thinking only about the task they face.
“It’s the playoffs, and I think the focus isn’t so much about road and home,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team boasted the best road mark in the NFL since 2009 until their recent struggles. “This is the path … this is the schedule.”
Quarterback Drew Brees likes to look at their road record before it went south over the last two months of the regular season.
“The last couple of outings have not been what we want, but we know we are about to break the seal,” he said.
“We have no other choice,” Brees added. “Heck, it’s the playoffs. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
About the Eagles
After 14 mostly-successful seasons under Andy Reid, a stretch that saw them play in five NFC Championship games and Super Bowl XXXIX, the Eagles sought a makeover last January.
They got it when Reid was fired after a disappointing 4-12 season and owner Jeff Lurie got University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly to bring his fast-paced offensive act to the next level.
The early results weren’t overwhelming, to say the least, when the Eagles stumbled with Michael Vick at quarterback. His propensity to turn over the ball led to a 3-5 start and forced Kelly to turn to young Nick Foles — which was what the offense needed.
Foles threw 27 touchdowns to only two picks in leading his team to a 7-1 mark in the second half of the season, and the Eagles won the NFC East.
Combined with the play of NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy and 1,000-yard receiver DeSean Jackson, the Eagles did enough on offense to cover up some deficiencies on the other side of the ball — namely the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense.
Key matchup: Eagles RB McCoy vs. Saints front seven
While Nick Foles has been a large part of the Eagles’ success, the Saints know that keeping LeSean McCoy from running wild on them will be the challenge Saturday night.
McCoy, a five-year veteran, led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards — 268 more than runner-up Matt Forte — and averaged 5.1 yards per carry with nine touchdowns.
McCoy is a speedy back who can make tacklers miss at the point of attack while exploiting the perimeter. So getting enough players to the ball and getting him on the ground when they have a chance to do so is a must.
If the Saints keep McCoy under 125 rushing yards, they’ll have a pretty good chance at winning this one.
X factor: Saints QB Drew Brees
Brees has thrown only 12 touchdown passes in eight road games — no more than two in any game — this season, but that will be the last thing on his mind when the Saints meet the Eagles.
Brees has been very effective in the postseason since joining the Saints in 2006, leading them to a 5-3 record with 20 touchdowns and a 104.5 passer rating.
As a result, his personal struggles and the team’s woes on the road this season won’t enter his mind Saturday night.
What matters most is what he does against the Eagles’ 32nd-ranked pass defense, which has allowed 289.8 yards per game and 25 TD passes in the regular season.
If Brees can be effective in frigid conditions and his offensive line does a solid job of protecting him like it did in last week’s win against the Tampa Bay Bucs, he could have a huge night.
Like the Saints defense with McCoy, the Eagles know they must keep Brees from having a 350-yard night in order to have a chance.
Three and out
1 DIGGING OUT: After the franchise lost its first four postseason games under Jim Mora, the Saints are 6-4 under Jim Haslett (1-1) and Sean Payton (5-3). Now 6-8 overall, they have a chance to move a bit closer to getting back to the .500 mark with a win over the Eagles.
2 BRINGING THE HEAT: The Eagles allowed 46 sacks this season, which should suit the Saints just fine. Cameron Jordan (121/2) and Junior Galette (12) became the first Saints duo to collect at least 12 sacks each since La’Roi Glover (17) and Joe Johnson (12) in 2000.
3 WHERE’S THE (BROTHERLY) LOVE?: The Saints have beaten the Eagles in Philadelphia just three times in 11 visits. They were 0-3 at Franklin Field, 1-4 at old Veterans Stadium and are 1-1 at Lincoln Financial Field, the site of Saturday night’s playoff game.