NEW ORLEANS (WWL.com) -- The New Orleans Saints begin their march towards the franchise’s second Super Bowl championship Sunday when they face the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles in the Superdome. We asked our sports staff to answer 5 Burning Questions about this week’s game.
1. What changes or adjustments can we expect to see from the Saints after the bye week?
Deuce McAllister: I think more and more it’s about the Saints, and the bye week was about them. The adjustments should be about what they have to correct, not really about the Eagles. I think you will see a really energized team just from having the extra week.
Bobby Hebert: The Saints took an internal look at themselves during the bye week. I would imagine the Saints focused hard on getting more production from the receiving corps outside of Mike Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
Zach Strief: I think the bye week will be less about changes and adjustments and more about refining the details of what you like to do. The offense is still young, especially at the receiver position, and there are details that get lost over the course of a season. Going back to refresh everyone on how the Saints want to execute will go a long way in being more productive offensively. Plus, getting everyone healthy and rested.
Steve Geller: The Saints need to clean up penalty issues, big time. They had 24 for 265 yards in the last three games of the regular season. Head coach Sean Payton and the players talked about working on themselves and fundamentals during the bye, so I would imagine that will be addressed. Hopefully the down time helped give a number of guys on the offensive line extended rest to be healthier.
Kristian Garic: First, the most important part of the bye week is the health of some guys that were banged up at the end of the regular season. Left tackle Terron Armstead, along with right guard Larry Warford, should be ready to go on Sunday. Sean Payton spoke often during the bye week about working on some of the little things that were troublesome down the stretch, in particular on offense down the field in the passing game. The Saints have to get more production in the postseason from rookie WR Tre’Quan Smith.
Seth Dunlap: It’s hard not to believe that Payton will bring a brand new bag of tricks into Sunday’s game. Payton is one of the most brilliant offensive minds of this generation, and the way he’s utilized talents like Kamara and Taysom Hill has been sensational to watch. When you give a coach like this an extra week to prepare, watch out. Defensively, expect the Saints to design a scheme to specifically shut down Nick Foles, who has been a much better passer against man coverage this season. That means you’ll likely see a lot of zone coverage schemes from defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and an effort to put pressure on Foles in those packages.
Mark Menard: I'm hoping the biggest adjustment will be a healthy offensive line for the Saints after getting essentially two weeks off for the guys who need it. Having the full complement of protectors in front of Drew Brees will be a huge key to the Saints returning to the explosive offensive output they enjoyed mid-season.
2. Does the Saints' 48-7 victory over the Eagles earlier this season matter?
Duece: It matters in the big picture, but not in this game. The Saints are wise to throw that game out the window and know that it means nothing and won’t have any impact on the game Sunday.
Bobby: Yeah, it matters, but not for this game. That game allowed them to secure a win, which helped them win the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Outside of that, it doesn’t have an impact on how this game will turn out.
Zach: It matters in terms of the reality that it happened. The Saints didn’t accidently win a game by 41 points. They were, and are, a better football team. Are they 41 points better? No, they are not. There will be a mentality within the Eagles that they have something to prove. They believe they are a very different team today than they were then. A fast start by the Saints could go a long way to let some doubt creep in. Ultimately, I think that mental side of football is a little overstated. Once the first ball is snapped, it’s just football again.
Steve: It matters to the Eagles, who feel the Saints ran up the score and are looking for some kind of edge to bring into the Superdome. It matters that Brees and the offense showed they could slice and dice Philly. Dr. Drew operated for 4 TDs with 373 yards passing and got 173 yards from the ground game with two more scores. The biggest difference for the Eagles has been on offense; their defense is still debatable.
Kristian: Of course it matters, but it won’t matter in this game. The Saints and Eagles will tell you that. The Eagles are a different team than the one that was blown out in the Superdome back in November. I just don’t know how different, or if they are different and good enough to beat the Saints.
Seth: Anybody who has played any competitive sport or game knows how getting beat down like the Eagles were can affect you mentally. It’s an imposing task to come back two months later and try to beat a team that just walloped you by 41 points. That said, this isn’t the same Eagles team. Foles has stabilized, and simplified, their offense, they’ve gotten healthy on the offensive and defensive lines, and their young secondary has had a chance to gel a little bit. Also, the impact defensive end Michael Bennett has had down the stretch is a little worrisome: Bennett has a reputation as a dynamic playoff force during his career. In essence, it does matter, but don’t expect the same kind of lopsided score on Sunday.
Mark: No. This Eagles team was wandering in the desert when they came down to New Orleans and got blasted. Since then, they've gotten their house in order in nearly every category that was lacking. And as far as the first game being any type of bulletin-board material for the Eagles, if you can't find enough motivation in simply being two wins away from the Super Bowl, you shouldn't be in the playoffs.
3. What’s the biggest area of concern for the Saints?
Deuce: I would say the Saints secondary. With Foles at QB, the Eagles like to take a few more shots down the field, and the Saints secondary has been leaky at times.
Bobby: The Saints are going to have to get pressure on Foles to help out the secondary. If that doesn’t happen, the Eagles are capable of making this game very interesting.
Zach: The health of the offensive line. The first half of the season this team was led by the offensive line. They gave Brees ample time, opened plenty of holes in the run game, and wore people down in the second half. It wasn’t just Armstead that was hurt. Every guy on the front has had issues for several weeks. A rejuvenated, refreshed offensive line would, in my opinion, lead the Saints to a Super Bowl.
Steve: The deep ball. I feel like the Eagles are going to be playing keep-up with the Saints, so expect a whole lot of passing from Foles. He has Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz to chuck it to, along with Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor. A missed assignment or flag for pass interference could allow Philadelphia to hang around and make it a much closer ballgame than it should be.
Kristian: The fact that the Eagles have won four in a row and are the defending Super Bowl champs. Teams that have a proven recent history of winning in January are always a tough out. What was the theme of wild card weekend? All three quarterbacks that lost all were making their first postseason starts. That’s not the case this week. Foles is the reigning Super Bowl MVP.
Seth: Two words – Zach Ertz. The Eagles tight end has become the biggest weapon at the position in the NFL, and the Saints have, at times, had difficulty defending elite pass catchers like Ertz. It’s one of the very few areas where the Eagles have a distinct advantage on the Saints.
Mark: The biggest area of concern for me has to be the receiving corps -- and not just because the production tailed off at the end of the season. The Eagles were signing DBs off the street to face the Saints in Week 11. They've gotten healthier, and if the Saints can't get someone other than Michael Thomas untracked on Sunday, it might be a rough day for Brees.
4. Does the Nick Foles “magic” scare you?
Deuce: Sure, it does. He’s the Super Bowl MVP. The Eagles believe in him; you can see that on the field.
Bobby: I don’t know about "magic," but he can flat-out play quarterback. And he’s a Super Bowl MVP, so you have to respect that.
Zach: No. I think Foles has done a good job of getting all the weapons involved in the passing game, and that the Eagles have been more complete offensively since he started playing, but I don’t necessarily think that’s because of Foles. The Eagles, like the Saints, had a hard time keeping their offensive line healthy throughout the year. They have gotten healthy of late, and I think the play of the offensive line has been the driving force behind the resurgence. Foles is a good QB, and he is capable of winning any game as long as his supporting cast plays at a high level.
Steve: Philly feels Foles. The Eagles just seem to play harder for him, so yeah. Carson Wentz was awful in the Dome during the regular season. It looked like the pressure from the defense and the crowd shook him to a degree. Foles is the more seasoned signal-caller. He has Philly hearing that "Rocky" music and believing again.
Kristian: St. Nick is a real thing! Foles Magic is a real thing! Foles brings a belief in this football team that they might not have in Wentz. If Foles upsets the Saints, I think it makes for an interesting conversation in Philly about his future vs. Wentz's. Foles will be a factor on Sunday as he takes aim on the Saints secondary.
Seth: How could it not? The Eagles are undefeated in the playoffs the past two years with Foles at quarterback, and they are 4-0 this season since he took over for Wentz. The most terrifying thing in football right now is probably Foles in the playoffs, with the ball and a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter. The Saints need to keep this a two-score game to negate any more Foles magic.
Mark: Foles will only have the opportunity to be magical if the Saints offense can't find their way. I don't believe Foles can solve the Fleur De Lis D enough times to keep up if the Saints score upwards of 35 points, as they were doing regularly for most of the 2018 season. The biggest reason is that the Saints' stellar run defense should be able to make Philly one-dimensional. However, if the Saints offense underachieves, then the door will certainly be open for Foles to work some late-game magic as he did in Chicago.
5. What’s your prediction?
Deuce: Saints 34, Eagles 28.
Bobby: It doesn’t matter if the Saints cover or not. Style points don’t mean anything. I think the Saints win, 31-25.
Zach: Playoff football is always tough. It’s hard to win games at the pro level, but especially hard in the playoffs. Payton always said the most desperate team wins. I think that is mostly true. The Saints know that their window with Brees will not be open forever. No team in the playoffs are more aware at how quickly a run to the Super Bowl can be taken away from you. They will play to their potential. Saints 31, Eagles 24.
Steve: Saints continue to Prove Them Right. One team down, one to go to the Super Bowl. Saints 31, Eagles 23.
Kristian: This point spread opened with the Saints as 9.5-point favorites over the Eagles. I’m not a handicapper or oddsmaker, but, man, that seems high. I think the Saints advance and beat the Eagles wihtout covering that spread. I like the Eagles' run, but it comes to an end. The Eagles will play their third straight road game this week, and that will play a role. Saints 34, Eagles 28.
Seth: The current eight-point spread the Vegas sports books have feels right on the money. I picked the Saints to win a closer game, 28-24, earlier this week, but the longer I’ve had to think about it, the more I feel the talent disparity and the Superdome crowd will be a bit too much to handle for the Eagles. Saints 35, Eagles 24.
Mark: While I think this iteration of the Eagles is quite a bit better than the one that got blown out 48-7 by the Saints almost two months ago, I think the lack of a run game will be their downfall, and the Saints defense will keep Philadelphia from being able to hang with a rested and rejuvenated Saints offense in the friendly confines of the Superdome. Saints win, 38-17.