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NFC Divisional Round preview: Eagles-Saints

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The Backstory

The New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles took different paths to the postseason.

The Saints cruised through the regular season with a 13-3 record, which included a 48-7 beat down of the Eagles in Week 11, en route to clinching the No. 1 seed.

Philadelphia's journey, however, proved tougher as the Eagles had to overcome a 4-6 start before going 6-1 down the stretch to get in the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Still, the postseason is often about clinching an opportunity to extend a season regardless how a team gets in, and then let the chips fall where they may. And for the Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champions took advantage of their situation with a win over the Chicago Bears last weekend to set up a rematch against the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Sunday's meeting sets up a unique storyline between Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, as both signal-callers are products of Westlake High School in Texas. Both quarterbacks are former Super Bowl MVPs, and the game marks the eighth time two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks will face square off against each other in the playoffs. History sides with the higher-seeded quarterback, who has five of the seven such matchups.

New Orleans holds a 2-1 all-time edge over the Eagles in the postseason, including wins in the last two matchups (2006 and 2013), and Foles' lone playoff loss came against the Saints in 2013.

The game, of course, is more than just Brees and Foles, who took over as the Eagles starter in Week 15 after Carson Wentz suffered a back injury. And the Saints will find a much different opponent from the regular season.

The Eagles turned around their regular season since the embarrassing loss with quality wins against the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans, and continued the impressive run into the postseason with the victory over the Bears. With the playoffs on the line, the Eagles' defense also clamped down in the final six regular-season contests to allow 19.5 points per game.

New Orleans might enter Sunday's matchup as the heavy favorite, but this showdown doesn't project as a repeat of Week 11's one-sided outing.

Under Pressure

Lane Johnson: The Eagles offensive line improved in protecting the quarterback since the Week 11 loss. In Weeks 1-11, the Eagles allowed 12.9 pressures and 3.1 sacks per game, but have allowed 8 pressures and 1.4 sacks per game since Week 12. And the front five didn't face a cupcake schedule either, as elite pass rushers Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney had their shots against the Eagles in the latter part of the season. The exceptional pass protection was capped off by last weekend's shutout of Khalil Mack. The Eagles need to carryover the exceptional blocking on Sunday against a Saints defense that finished the regular season ranked fifth in sacks (49). And Johnson will matchup against defensive end Cameron Jordan, who finished the regular season with 12 sacks while lined up over the right tackle.

Ted Ginn Jr.: Ginn missed the Week 11 game while on injured reserve with a knee injury in the first meeting before returning in Week 16 of the regular season. In his absence, rookie wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith gave the Eagles fits, totaling a career 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. The Saints, however, didn't get enough consistency out of the No. 2 receiver spot with Ginn shelved and need the veteran's ability to stretch the field to help take pressure off All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas, who will command a lot of the Eagles' coverage.

Matchup to Watch

Saints cornerbacks vs. Eagles wide receivers: Numerous Saints defenders were uniform in pointing out the biggest difference between Foles and Wentz, and it surrounds the former's ability to get rid of the ball quickly. With that understanding, Saints cornerback Eli Apple said it is important to disrupt the Eagles' wide receivers at the line of scrimmage by being physical with the hopes of re-routing the pass catchers to throw off timing between quarterback and receiver. The Saints' top three cornerbacks -- Apple, Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams -- have proven they can play press-man, so the defense is equipped should defensive coordinator Dennis Allen prefer that approach over zone-coverage schemes. Either way, Eagles wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Golden Tate present a challenge to any defense, and the Saints can't forget about tight end Zach Ertz.

Prediction

Running back Alvin Kamara turned heads during the offseason when he said the Saints would have beat the Eagles in last year's playoffs, and now New Orleans has the opportunity to do just that. The Eagles, however, apparently have extra motivation from the Week 11 matchup with left tackle Jason Peters taking exception to the score, which head coach Doug Pederson said he didn't believe the Saints ran up. The chatter aside, Sunday's game will be an entertaining back-and-forth affair between two quality NFL playoff teams. Only one can advance, though, and the advantage in this matchup goes to the home team, where the Saints are 5-0 in the postseason since the Brees/Sean Payton era began in 2006.

New Orleans Saints 27, Philadelphia Eagles 20

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