PHILADELPHIA – During the week, I’ve broken down several players and matchups that I think will have the biggest impact on tonight’s playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. Among them:
The up-tempo chess match between Eagles coach Chip Kelly and Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan
The Saints’ need to get off to a fast start
Here are a few more things to keep an eye on in this week’s expanded edition of What 2 Watch 4:
Avoiding turnovers: The Eagles come into this game with the 32nd-ranked pass defense in the NFL. But when the Saints were asked about that number this week, they often pointed to another one – the Eagles’ 31 takeaways, which tied for third in the NFL.
Turnovers are always one of the biggest factors in any football game. But they’ve especially loomed large for the Saints in their road losses this year. They’ve got to avoid those early turnovers that swing the momentum toward the home team.
“They’re really good at causing turnovers. They’ve been doing that very, very well lately,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “And obviously on the road we have to be able to protect the ball. That’s kind of been our downfall on the road. And if we can do that [Saturday], we give ourselves a chance.”
Rattling Foles? On the flip side, recent history suggests the Saints will have trouble forcing turnovers in this game. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw just two interceptions all season after taking over as the starter early in the year. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have collected a league-low four turnovers since Week 9, while the Eagles have surrendered a league-low five turnovers in that span.
But this will still be quite a test of nerves for Foles, a second-year pro, in his biggest game to date. The Saints’ duo of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette need to create pressure on him, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will certainly try and confuse him with certain looks.
“I think he’s just the glue to it,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “I think he really has a great understanding of what they’re trying to get done each play. He gets the ball in there. He’s accurate. He holds onto the ball and gets it where it needs to be. He’s not flustered by pressure.”
Jimmy Graham: The Eagles’ McCoy and the Saints’ Graham might both have a worthy case to be considered the top playmaker in the NFL this year. Graham led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns, while catching 86 passes for 1,215 yards. … And his brief playoff history is even better.
Graham has only appeared in two playoff games – after the 2011 season. He caught 12 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns in those two games, including a 66-yard catch-and-run score that almost lifted to the Saints to a come-from-behind win at San Francisco.
“Obviously last year was my first year not in the playoffs, and it just didn’t feel right,” said Graham, who was injured during the playoffs in his rookie year. “So to be back in a big game and in the playoffs is special. And obviously if you’re a good player, you have to play better. And if you’re an OK player, you’ve got to play good. That’s what the playoffs is about. You have to bring your A game. And the tempo, how physical the game is, everything is a new level in the playoffs. So, obviously, I’m excited for it.”
Armstead vs. Cole: Saints rookie left tackle Terron Armstead got his wish this week. He was barely approached by the media after being swarmed during his first two weeks on the job. But even though he has now settled in with two career starts under his belt, the pressure won’t back off now that he’s in the playoffs.
And neither will the level of the opposition. Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole has been one of the league’s top pass-rushers for nearly a decade, with 79 career sacks in the regular season. And the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder has been especially hot lately. All eight of his sacks came over the last eight games of the season.
“He’s a veteran guy that’s got a lot of career sacks. He’s proven to know how to rush the passer,” said Armstead, who said his mindset hasn’t changed from the past two weeks. “I’m just gonna approach every game the same, with the same focus and preparation.”