Player I’ll be watching:
McManus: Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles need to find a way to generate pressure on Drew Brees and if it comes from the interior, all the better. Cox leads the team with 21 quarterback hurries on the season (Trent Cole is second with 15). The more disruptive he is, the fewer opportunities Brees will have to operate in a clean pocket and follow through on his throws.
The second-year lineman has his work cut out for him, as the Saints boast two Pro Bowl guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. But this is the time when you need your top-end players to step up.
Kapadia: DeSean Jackson.
Remember him? Jackson set career highs this season with 82 catches and 1,332 yards. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored nine times.
But after a career day against the Vikings, Jackson managed just 57 yards in the last two games combined.
Saturday night would be an excellent time to get him going again. The Saints are without two key cogs in their secondary: cornerback Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-November, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro hurt his ankle in Week 16. The Saints only allowed 40 pass plays of 20+ yards all season, fourth-fewest. The Eagles led the league with 80.
Even if Jackson doesn’t get over the top, he needs plenty of touches. Kelly has done a brilliant job of scheming up matchups for No. 10 all season. Look for that to continue vs. New Orleans.
Prop bet of the week:
Receiving yards for Jimmy Graham – 75.9. Whaddya got?
McManus: I’ll go over here.
Graham will be all over the place. He’ll line up as a traditional tight end, in the slot, out wide, and maybe even in the backfield. Multiple Eagles defenders — from Mychal Kendricks to Brandon Boykin to Cary Williams to Bradley Fletcher — are likely to get a turn covering him.
Brees targeted Graham 144 times during the regular season — that’s 34 more looks than he gave his second-favorite receiving option, Marques Colston. In a hostile environment with their season on the line, there’s a good chance Brees goes to his security blanket frequently. Though the Eagles will be focusing much of their defensive efforts on slowing down the 6-7, 265-pound tight end, that is easier said than done.
Kapadia: Graham averaged 75.9 during the regular season, but it may surprise you that he hasn’t gone over that number in the last five games. Since Dec. 2, Graham has averaged 53.8 yards per game. Of course, he still found the end zone five times during that stretch.
There’s not a “Graham Stopper” on this roster. No linebacker or safety matches up well with him. You could try a cornerback like Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher, but 42 of Graham’s catches this year have come from the slot, per Pro Football Focus. And those guys haven’t played inside all season. You could try Brandon Boykin, but he’s giving up 10 inches.
Look for Billy Davis to try to mix up coverages and use Trent Cole/Connor Barwin to jam Graham at the line of scrimmage whenever possible before passing him off to Kendricks, Boykin, Nate Allen or someone else.
I can’t say this is the most confident I’ve ever been in a prediction, but I’ll say he goes slightly under the 75.9 number.
McManus: Eagles 28, Saints 20
The Saints’ defense is allowing 4.6 yards/rushing attempt, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league. The Eagles, meanwhile, have the game’s most productive back in LeSean McCoy, who heads a rushing attack that finished the regular season tops in the NFL (160.4 yards/game). An efficient ground game coupled with the up-tempo attack should be enough to prevent Rob Ryan from dialing up as many exotic blitzes as he’d like.
The defense has a big challenge ahead, but could be aided by the conditions. Brees’ completion rate dropped 11 percent when he played outdoors this season. That’s a pretty significant dip. If Brees shows his human side, the Eagles should have a couple opportunities to generate takeaways.
New Orleans has been shaky on the road and the Eagles are coming in hot and healthy. I say they advance.
Kapadia: Eagles 27, Saints 26
To me, this is the ultimate coin-flip game. I know what Brees’ numbers are outside. I also know that there were too many blown assignments/guys getting beat last week against Kyle Orton and the Cowboys.
The Saints are just the type of offense that should match up well against Davis. Brees is not going to be fooled by different looks, he’s efficient and accurate, and he has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. He might not be “Superdome Brees” but he’s’ still going to move the football against this defense.
Having said that, I expect the Eagles to be able to move the football as well. Even last week, when the offense sputtered in the second half, they still put up 24 points and were half-a-yard from making that 31. The Saints’ secondary is a little banged-up, and New Orleans has not been stout against the run.
This one comes down to the fourth quarter, but the Eagles find a way to squeak out a win like they’ve done on several occasions this season.
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