If accounts from Louisiana are to be believed, the New Orleans Saints still employ Drew Brees, which by itself might be sufficient to account for the eight points by which they are currently favored to beat the Eagles this coming weekend in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
When the Eagles flew home from New Orleans late in the evening of Nov. 18, having been humiliated 48-7 by the NFC’s highest-flying team and its future Hall of Fame quarterback, nobody was thinking about the possibility of revenge in the playoffs. The Eagles were 4-6. They were using practice-squad guys, and worse, in their defensive secondary. Significant players were going down in droves, every week, it seemed like.
Plus, the Saints just looked amazing. Their blowout of the Eagles was the ninth installment of a 10-game winning streak, coming one week after they put a 51-14 beating on the Cincinnati Bengals. Words like “unstoppable” were being thrown around.
Two weeks later, the Saints went to visit Dallas and were stopped in a 13-10 loss that showed New Orleans to be less than perfect. Specifically, it showed that outside of running back Alvin Kamara (1,592 combined yards running and receiving this season, 18 touchdowns) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (125 catches, 1,405 yards, nine touchdowns), Brees lacks scary weapons. And his offensive line has looked vulnerable in the wake of some key injuries.
The Saints scored 31.5 points per game during the regular season, third-most in the NFL, but even if you throw out that misleading 33-14 Week 17 loss to Carolina, played with backups, they scored just 22.4 per game over the five games between their romp over the Eagles and the finale. The Eagles, meanwhile, scored 27.4 points per game over their final five regular-season games, beating the playoff-bound Rams and Texans along the way.
“I think you just have to look at where we’ve come and what we’ve done,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday, when asked why fans should think this meeting will go differently from the one in November. “Just the way this team has come together at the end of the season, to be counted out with even about three games to go, and we had to go on, really, had to win our last three regular-season games, even to be into the postseason, needed a little bit of help.
“But this team believes. This team believes in everything that we’re doing, and you saw it [in beating 12-4 Chicago Sunday], and we’re different. It’s a different mindset. It’s a different football team.”
In particular, the offensive line and defensive backfield are healthier and better. Tackling, a huge problem for the Eagles in their first meeting with the Saints, has improved dramatically, in some cases just because young players are gaining experience and confidence. Golden Tate is more a part of the offense. Darren Sproles is healthy. And there is the Nick Foles effect – you can argue over whether Carson Wentz would have thrown that awful second interception Foles threw against the Bears, but you can’t argue with Foles’ gutsy final touchdown drive, or the way it ended, on a fourth-down touchdown pass to Tate that set the final score.
“We’ve been battle-tested all year. We’ve been playing playoff football since Week 13, Week 14, whatever,” defensive end Brandon Graham said Sunday.
“We definitely know what happened down there, know what we did wrong, [and are] looking to right some wrongs,” right guard Brandon Brooks said.
Told that people will be skeptical that a team can come back to the same dome where it lost 48-7 and win two months later, Brooks said: “They said we weren’t going to get to the playoffs, either, said we weren’t going to win this game [Sunday in Chicago]. We’ll see what happens down there.”
*Jordan Matthews didn’t catch a pass Sunday, but he drew a 33-yard pass-interference penalty that was longer than any Eagles completion, which set up Dallas Goedert’s touchdown.
*The only Josh Adams carry came on the first series of the game.
*The Bears forced the Eagles to settle for a first-series field goal by sacking Nick Foles on third-and-7 from the Chicago 17. That turned out to be the Bears’ only sack of the day. Solid job by the o-line.
*Boston Scott, the Eagles’ running back and kick returner, was on the Saints’ practice squad, standing on their sideline, for the teams’ Nov. 18 meeting. The Eagles signed him Dec. 11.
*Real strong game for linebacker Nigel Bradham, still wearing that cast on his left thumb. Early on, Bradham blocked a pass on third down in Eagles’ territory, forcing a punt. He finished with seven solo tackles, two tackles for losses, and two passes defended. The Eagles played a lot of “dime,” and Bradham played all 64 defensive snaps.
*Rookie tight end Goedert, with seemingly half his hometown of Britton, S.D., in attendance, caught two passes – a 10-yarder for a touchdown on a snap when the Bears only had 10 men on the field, and a 10-yard catch-and-run on a middle screen, as the Eagles moved toward Golden Tate’s winning touchdown catch. “That run was something special,” TV analyst Cris Collinsworth said. “Remember that run as this game goes along.”
Afterward, Goedert was asked what the huddle was like on the winning drive, with the Soldier Field crowd stomping and screaming.
“Nick [Foles] talks about that being our sanctuary, and that’s kind of what it was,” he said. “We were calm, collected, went down there and did exactly what we were supposed to do.”
That after Jon Gruden gave the Bears Khalil Mack, he would balance the scales by giving the Eagles Treyvon Hester?
Monday, when the NFL officially changed its ruling on Cody Parkey’s final kick to a blocked field goal by Treyvon Hester, it became the first field goal blocked by the Eagles in postseason franchise history.
There was much discussion Sunday that the Eagles should have had two Bears turnovers, the interception on which Avonte Maddox didn’t get his second foot down in bounds, and the pick that bounced off Tre Sullivan’s hands and chest in the Eagles’ end zone. But there was a third opportunity.
On second-and-3 from the Eagles’ 35, with 36 seconds remaining in the first half, Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky hit Anthony Miller deep down the seam, inside the 10, but Cre’Von LeBlanc had his hand inside Miller’s arms, on the ball the whole time, and he ripped it out as they ran toward the goal line. An official immediately ruled it an incomplete pass, as the ball rolled on the turf, and then the official picked it up.
Problem: On replay review, Miller had the ball long enough for it to be a catch and fumble (though the idea that Miller fully controlled the ball, with LeBlanc’s arm in there the whole way, might not find unanimous agreement across the land).
Former referee and NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay advised viewers that the Bears would get the ball at the spot of the fumble. Of course, this didn’t happen – the ruling, supported by the rule book, was that in such a situation, absent a clear recovery (yikes, that phrase again), the call of an incomplete pass stands.
This seemed pretty fair, except to McAulay, who opined that taking the catch away “doesn’t seem logical.” Presumably, he would have found it more logical to ignore the forced fumble and the fact that LeBlanc easily could have recovered it, had the official in front of him not been signaling an incomplete pass.
“I was just so hyped, so amped up,” LeBlanc said after the game. He played well, on the field that was home during his 2016-17 stint with the Bears. He and Miller are friends. “That’s my little bro, man, and I know how hard he goes,” LeBlanc said. “Just great friendly competition out there. He has very strong hands, he’s a phenomenal receiver.”
LeBlanc said he didn’t think of scooping up or jumping on the ball, because he couldn’t imagine Miller would be ruled to have made a catch.
“The ball was bobbling out, coming out, no knee had touched the ground yet,” he said.
“It was a very emotional game for me, very personal,” said LeBlanc, who made a big third-down tackle on Bears tight end Adam Shaheen to force a punt.