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January 11, 2019

NFL playoff picks: Rounding up the experts' predictions for divisional round matchup between Eagles and Saints

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The Eagles, who it feels like have been playing do-or-die games for the last two months, will once again put it all on the line on Sunday when they travel to New Orleans for a rematch against the Saints, who are coming off a first-round bye and have already blown out the Birds once this season, a 48-7 drubbing in Week 11. 

So the Birds don't stand a chance, right? Depends who you ask...

We've broken down the injuries, pointed out the key matchups on both sides of the ball, and offered our own predictions for this one. Now, as we do every week, it's time to see how the various experts, both local and national, think Sunday's divisional round matchup in New Orleans is going to play out.

•  PhillyVoice staff: Three of our five writers are taking the Saints to hold off the Eagles, including Jimmy Kempski. And while Jimmy thinks the Saints win, he also offered up 10 reasons why the Birds are in better shape than the last time they visited New Orleans. It's about as positive as a pick to lose can be.

  1. Drew Brees and the Saints' offense cooled off near the end of the regular season, as Brees had a QB rating of 84.7 in his last four games. In his first 11 games, he had a 127.3 QB rating, on the strength of 29 TDs vs. 2 INTs. The Saints averaged 20.3 points per game in those four "bad Brees" games, when they had been averaging 37.2 points per game in the previous 11 games.
  2. Five nicked-up Saints offensive linemen were limited in practice this week. Even if they all play, will they be 100 percent?
  3. The Eagles' offense was probably at its low point in the season when they faced the Saints the first time around. Since then, the offensive line has gotten healthier, and the offense in general is just playing better.
  4. The Eagles were forced to play Chandon Sullivan, DeVante Bausby, and an obviously injured Sidney Jones in that game, and that went about as you would expect. Since then, Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas, and Cre'Von LeBlanc have really solidified the Eagles' secondary.
  5. The Eagles' run defense was getting gashed at the time, but they've since gotten healthier along the defensive line and at linebacker. The Eagles' run defense is playing far better, as they have allowed fewer than 2.5 rushing yards per attempt to running backs over the last four games.
  6. Malcolm Jenkins, Nigel Bradham, and LeBlanc combined to do a great job against Tarik Cohen last Sunday, which should bode well for their chances of containing a similar player in Alvin Kamara.
  7. The Saints' pass defense isn't very good, while the Eagles' passing offense has taken off at times in recent weeks. It never got its sea legs in New Orleans in November after the team fell behind early, but they should be able to make plays this weekend.
  8. The Saints haven't played a meaningful game since Week 16, and even then they weren't under much pressure. It's worth noting that over the last 11 years (that's not an arbitrary cut-off point -- just trust me there), teams that had home field advantage throughout the playoffs and rested starters Week 17 have a 4-6 record in their first game back in the playoffs.
  9. Revenge. The Saints most definitely ran up the score on the Eagles Week 11, when in the fourth quarter of a game that was a 38-7 blowout already, they went for it on 4th and 6, with Brees hitting Kamara on a deep ball for a touchdown. That prompted Jenkins to flip Sean Payton the bird. The Eagles have played cool on that all week, but they sure as hell remember being disrespected that day.
  10. Mojo. If you believe in that kind of thing, the Eagles have it at the moment. The Saints? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

•  ESPN staff: Each of their nine experts picked the Saints. Get ready, because I have a feeling this is going to be a lot like the last time these teams met, at least in terms of how many are picking Philly.

•  Tim McManus, Saints 27, Eagles 24

The Eagles are playing their best ball of the year and are 4-0 since Foles came in for the injured Carson Wentz. The defense was gashed for 546 yards and 48 points by New Orleans in Week 11, but it has since stabilized, yielding 15 points total over the past two games. This will be a much closer game, but the home-field advantage the Superdome provides will come into play and tilt the game the Saints' way. 

•  Mike Triplett, Saints 30, Eagles 20

Of course I don't expect another 48-7 rout like their last meeting two months ago, but the Saints do have a lot going in their favor as the No. 1 seed. Most importantly, their banged-up offensive line has had time to rest, which should help their offense get back on track and help nullify Philly's terrific front four. New Orleans' receiving corps is also healthier with Ted Ginn Jr. coming back late in the season, and a refreshed Alvin Kamara should play a huge part in the passing game. Last but not least, the Saints are at home, where they have averaged 40 points per game in the past five games that Brees played. The Saints are 5-0 in the Superdome in the playoffs during the Sean Payton-Brees era.

•  Elliot Harrison, Saints 28, Eagles 27

When these two teams faced off in New Orleans two months ago, the Eagles played their worst game in recent memory, getting blown out of the Superdome, 48-7. This rematch feels like when you failed freshman geology in college, then took it again as a junior to expunge it from your GPA. (Not that I did that or anything.) According to all the pundits lurking out there in the football ether, Nick Foles is the difference between then and now. Does the lanky QB make tackles or cover RBs out of the backfield? No. But you can't dismiss the fact that Jim Schwartz's guys are competing like they have something to compete for, playing every down with a sense of urgency. This can be seen on pro football's most urgent down: The Eagles have allowed opponents to convert just 12 of their 47 third-down attempts over the last four games (which, fortunately for Foles, happens to be the time period when he's retaken the reins). From an expanded view, Philadelphia has allowed 18.9 points per game since getting decimated in New Orleans back in Week 11. The Eagles also own a whopping plus-10 sack differential during this span. For every sack, there is pressure. And every hit on the QB rattles him a little more. The Eagles are making life much more difficult for opposing passers than their own. 

So, since Philly was destroyed handily in the Big Easy, the Saints have just sat on their butts, right? Not exactly. Sean Payton has kept his team motivated, even when things haven't gone swimmingly (SEE: that Thursday nighter in Dallas). Under the radar, however, is the fact that New Orleans has brandished its own brand of championship defense. From Week 10 to Week 16, Dennis Allen's unit allowed just 14.6 points per game. Cherry-picking stats? No. In Week 17, Payton rested starters in a blowout loss to the Panthers. The previous seven games, his team was fighting for the right to host this very game I am writing about. Put another way: Folesmania has somehow diminished the accomplishments of the top team in football -- specifically when it comes to a defense that, like the Eagles, spun the 2018 narrative on its axis after allowing 48 points to a red-and-pewter LSD trip in September. For all the matchup problems Drew Brees and his offensive mates present, it's the less-considered side of the ball that delivers the W. Not because Foles will be overcome by the moment or the crowd noise, but because the Saints' defense won't be out on the field all game. Payton will run the ball, unlike Philadelphia's opponent last week.

• staff: All eight of their experts are picking the Eagles ... to lose.

MORE: Eagles-Saints predictions, odds and broadcast info

•  OddsShark: Their computer model is predicting a six-point loss for the Eagles, which is much better than what they were saying leading up to Week 11.

•  Mike Florio, ProFootballTalk: Eagles 20, Saints 17

Few believed the Eagles could beat the Bears in Chicago. (I did.) Fewer believe the Eagles can beat the Saints in New Orleans. I do. Coupling the bye week with a lackluster Week 17 game against the Panthers, and it will have been a long time since the Saints played a meaningful game. The Eagles have been playing meaningful games week after week after week. The road team has improved greatly since losing 48-7 in the Superdome, and the Saints peaked during round one. So push the chips into the middle of the table, hope the Eagles keep it close, count on a little magic late in the game, and prepare for the biggest debate of the offseason regarding whether the Eagles should keep Nick Foles or Carson Wentz.

•  Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk: Saints 31, Eagles 17

When these teams met in the regular season, the Saints won in a 48-7 beatdown. That was the second-biggest margin of victory in the NFL during the 2018 season, second only to the Ravens destroying the Nathan Peterman-led Bills in Week One. If Nick Foles can lead the Eagles to a win over the Saints after the same opponent dominated Carson Wentz in the regular season, it’s going to lead to increased calls to make Foles, not Wentz, the Eagles’ franchise quarterback. Fortunately for the Saints (and for Wentz), I don’t see that happening. Drew Brees should have a big day against the Eagles’ defense, and although the Saints aren’t going to win by 41 again, they should win by a healthy margin.

•  Bleacher Report, NFL staff: All three of their experts are picking the Eagles to lose by double digits. Ouch.

•  SBNation staff: Five of their six writers are picking the Saints over the Eagles.

•  Bleeding Green Nation staff: Six of their seven writers are picking the Birds to win. 

• staff: Three of their four experts are picking the Saints.

MORE: 'The Philly Godfather': Smart money likes Eagles to cover and more

• staff: It's nearly an even split, with three of their seven writers taking the Birds over the Saints, including Eagles beat writer Zack Rosenblatt.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I'm going with my gut. There's something special about this Eagles team, the chemistry, the locker room dynamic and aura of Foles. Right now, this feels more like the team that won the Super Bowl a year ago more than it has this entire season. It's a team clicking in all three phases, even if it took a sloppy win over the Chicago Bears to advance. 

The Saints are better. The Eagles still, somehow, will pull it off.

PICK: Eagles 31, Saints 28

•  Tadd Haislop, Sporting News: Saints 31, Eagles 13

To suggest this game will play out the same way it did in November, when these teams met in New Orleans, would be ludicrous. A score of 48-7 in an NFL game is the definition of a fluke; that kind of talent gap between two given teams in this league simply does not exist. Everything went right for the Saints that day, and just about everything went wrong for the Eagles.

So maybe New Orleans won't blow out Philadelphia in the divisional playoffs, but the Saints are heavy favorites for good reasons.

Before the season, SN picked the Saints to win Super Bowl 53 on the basis of their complete roster. The offense is loaded. The defense is stacked. The special teams are sound. And, oh yeah, the QB is the NFL's all-time passing yards leader. The apparent magic of a Foles-led Eagles team in the postseason can only take them so far.

The Saints, especially at home, are simply too good.

•  Vinny Iyer, Sporting News: Saints 33, Eagles 20

The Eagles managed a road victory against a good defensive team in Chicago. They will need to score a lot more points to do the same in New Orleans. Foles will once again be called upon to make every clutch pass play in a one-dimensional offense, as Philadelphia will keep struggling to run the ball with former Saint Darren Sproles and others.

Brees and the Saints will go after big pass plays to build a significant lead, and they can close the game with plenty of effective touches for Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The Saints have a strong inside-outside pass rush to get after Foles, and their coverage is built to slow down his top two targets, Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz.

The Saints are better rested and better balanced, and they play their best when it counts in the Superdome. They remember the heartbreak of the “Minneapolis Miracle” in the divisional playoff road loss last season and don’t want that same feeling of disappointment with a much better overall team this season.

Brees and Sean Payton won’t be denied as they make sure Foles and Doug Pederson fall two steps short of their quest to repeat.

RELATED: Safety Blitz with Malcolm Jenkins: This Eagles team is different than last time we played Saints

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