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How playoff loss to Saints impacted Eagles

Chip Kelly worked to shore up weaknesses from that game, and acquired two of those Saints.

THE LAST TIME the Eagles played the New Orleans Saints ended up affecting the way the current Eagles are constructed.

Three major factors defeated the Birds on Jan. 4, 2014, when they hosted the first and so far only playoff game of the Chip Kelly regime:

1. They couldn't stop the run, after Bill Davis set up his defense to shut down a lethal passing attack oriented around tight end Jimmy Graham.

2. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles played pretty well for a first-year starter but took a half to get going (hmm, that sounds kinda familiar) and he missed a few throws that could have swung the outcome in a 26-24 game.

3. A late kickoff return by the Saints' Darren Sproles, on which cornerback Cary Williams took a 15-yard penalty, set the Saints up in Eagles territory, pretty much making the game-winning field goal inevitable.

Two seasons later, the Eagles pride themselves on being hard to run against. They don't fear passes over the middle quite as much as they did when they were preparing for Graham, partly because a couple of months after that loss, they signed the quarterback of the Saints' secondary, safety Malcolm Jenkins. (And they've since added active linebacker Kiko Alonso, who isn't playing this week after a knee scope.) Foles is in St. Louis, for better or for worse, after Kelly determined he was not the QB he wanted to build around. The Eagles also have added players who dramatically strengthened their special-teams coverage, and they assured themselves they would never again be beaten by Sproles by trading for him that offseason.

Of course, those changes don't mean the Eagles now have a great team. They're 1-3 and extremely flawed, much like the current version of the Saints.

Which might lead to a lesson. Of course, it's important to go into the offseason looking to address glaring weaknesses. But a long time ago, when I was covering hockey, somebody said something to me I've never forgotten: You can't get too focused on chasing what beat you last year. Last year is over. It's just as important to anticipate what could beat you in the season ahead.

In the Eagles' case, this would have entailed, say, not ignoring replenishment of the offensive line as key components got older, just because the group continued to function pretty well when healthy. Or anticipating that if you discarded two savvy, explosive wide receivers in their primes - DeSean Jackson in 2014 and Jeremy Maclin this year - replacing them with a couple of high draft picks who were less savvy and less explosive would have an impact that would ripple through your offense, both the pass game and the run game.

Jenkins, asked yesterday what he recalled from beating the Eagles in the postseason, said: "We did a pretty good job of stopping the run, keeping the ball in front of us, and then they threw it deep to D-Jack," a 40-yarder that began the Birds' climb out of a 20-7 third-quarter hole. Jackson then set up a field goal with a 29-yard punt return.

"They scored on two quick possessions . . . I just remember it being a slow start for the (Eagles') offense, and then all of a sudden they just exploded and brought themselves back into the game."

Kelly, asked what he remembered, recalled quite a lot, pretty vividly.

"We didn't make enough plays, especially down (at) the end," he recalled. "We put ourselves in a hole. We were down, 20-7, at one point. There's a million things that go through your mind."

Kelly referenced Alex Henery's missed 48-yard field goal, which should have been a shorter attempt - he noted that a screen pass lost 8 yards, then Foles took an 11-yard sack.

"Not containing Darren on the last kickoff, I think, was a big turning point in that game," Kelly said.

"We didn't give ourselves a chance," after giving up the kickoff return and penalty, Brandon Graham said yesterday. "(Sproles) is with us now. Let's turn it around and get that 'W.' "

Jimmy Graham is in Seattle now, but the Saints still have Drew Brees at quarterback, which might be enough to beat these inoffensive Eagles.

Brees is 36 now, and his arm was never all that powerful, but Davis said this week that facing him is like facing a coordinator at quarterback.

"He's smart," Sproles said, when asked what he would tell Eagles defenders about his former teammate in San Diego and New Orleans, still one of Sproles' closest friends. "He watches a lot of film, so you have to give him something he hasn't seen."

The dink-and-dunk game Brees authored to beat Dallas Sunday night was similar to what Washington's Kirk Cousins did to the Birds. (Of course, until the Eagles' offense's futility exhausted the defense, Cousins put only 16 points on the board through 55 minutes.)

The Saints won the Dallas game in overtime on a play the Eagles like to run for Sproles - a wheel route by running back C.J. Spiller, who took Brees' pass 80 yards for a touchdown on the second snap of extra time.

"Obviously, Spiller is a very talented player," Kelly said. "Outstanding speed guy. And that was evident in overtime. The linebacker for Dallas was matched up on him, and he just ran by him."

"(Brees) gets rid of the ball a lot to the running backs," Brandon Graham said. "It's going to be one of those days where we just got to stay on the running backs, and make sure we do what we've got to do on the back end."

Spiller might give the Saints some of what they had with Sproles, but they still seem to miss Jenkins in the secondary, where their average of 9.8 yards per opponent completion is the NFL's worst figure. New Orleans thought it was upgrading from Jenkins in 2014 by signing Buffalo Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd played only four games last season before suffering a knee injury, and the Dallas game was his first this season.

Jenkins might be the Eagles' defensive MVP to this point, though Fletcher Cox has been extremely disruptive up front. Opposing passers have only an 84.4 rating against the Birds, eighth-best in the NFL. New Orleans is last, at 116.3.

Jenkins played the first five years of his career in New Orleans and won a Super Bowl there as a rookie. Every day this week, he has answered questions about facing his former team, and, every day, he has deflected those questions.

"I just want to win. Whoever they put out there," Jenkins said yesterday. "I'm looking forward to competing against some of the guys I know pretty well, but there's a lot of new players on the team."