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Thursday, January 2, 2014

NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: Saints vs Eagles

New Orleans Saints vs Philadelphia Eagles: PHI -2.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

Las Vegas opened the Eagles as -2.5 point favorites for this Wild Card game and we've yet to see any line movement in either direction since.

As of today, 56 percent of the bets are coming in on the Saints.  Will that translate into line movement before kickoff?  I think this might be the toughest game to handicap this weekend, so it would surprise me if there was a clear move in either direction.

Keep an eye on

There are two primary areas to consider for this matchup when we look at the X's and O's, but before I get to that let's take care of the biggest talking point of this game - the location.

Payton and Brees are no stranger to the playoffs, and 10 Saints veterans have been in the playoffs in 4 of the last 5 years. Yet, the Payton-Brees combination are 0-3 in road playoff games. This year Brees has 23 TDs and 3 interceptions at home, but only 12 TDs and 9 interceptions on the road.

But let’s keep this in mind the Saints were leading in New England before Brady led an improbable TD drive, and also in Carolina before Newton marched down for a game winning TD.  Pinpointing the Saints road problems isn't so easy.

The advanced stats guys have looked at this, but they can’t find anything specific in the data that explains the home-road dichotomy for Drew Brees or the Saints. All we know is the win-loss results certainly suggest it exists.

And there is also this …
In the playoffs, dome teams playing in temperatures below 35 degrees on the road are 3-22. 

But the weather and locale aren't the only things that the Saints should be worried about on Saturday night.

A key factor will be how they handle the Eagles offensive line and the dynamic ability of LeSean McCoy. McCoy led the league for RBs, and he’s finished in top 4 in efficiency rankings 3 times in last 4 years.  And only Charles had a better month of December.

The Philly offensive line does a great job blocking, led by Peters, who is is equally good at pass and run blocking.  He led all OTs in December and in three of those games he didn’t give up a single pressure. Kelce was also the highest graded center for December, giving up only one hurry and dominated in run blocking. Mathis is another guy who flies under the radar, but ranks among the better guards in the NFL.  

If the Saints can't find a way to slow down McCoy, the Eagles will be able to score points and keep Brees off the field. In addition, the Saints will also be more susceptible to the play-action pass. Philly has done a great job utilizing the play-action in the second half of the year and it's a big reason for their 7-1 record down the stretch.

This presents two-pronged problem for the Saints because of their situation at safety. Kenny Vaccaro was not only good at coming into the box to stop run plays, but he was equally effective back in coverage. With him out for the year, they now have to rely on Jenkins and Harper. 

Jenkins only offers value in coverage due to his previous play at cornerback, but he hasn't played well down the stretch. Harper is a flat-out liability in coverage and not much better against the run.  This could mean big games from DeSean Jackson and/or Brent Celek.

None of this means that the Eagles are the clear favorites though. The Saints are going to present a monumental test and most of the damage should come from Jimmy Graham.

Graham led all tight ends in TD receptions this year and the Eagles secondary isn't equipped to deal with him. We don't know if Wolff is healthy enough to play, but if he can't go they might have to go with Chung at safety. That is not an ideal situation for Philly and you can be sure Payton and Brees will exploit that weakness all night long.

And Graham's big play ability isn't the only issue for the Eagles. Brees is one of the least sacked QBs in the NFL and they are capable of exposing any defense with their short-passing game. This is part of the reason why the Saints are among the best on third down. In contrast, the Eagles defense are below average in this category. 

But most importantly, this game could be decided when the Saints have the ball inside the Eagles 20 yard line. Surprisingly, New Orleans is average with their red zone offense this season, and most of their success came at home. This is one area where the Eagles defense is really good at, so we'll see who can rise to the occasion in those "make-or-break" moments on Saturday night.

Bottom Line

Of all the Wild Card picks this weekend, this is one that I'm least confident about. The Saints have more playoff experience than the Eagles, and with a game on the line I'd probably feel more comfortable with a Payton-Brees combination than Kelly-Foles. 

That said, it's hard to ignore the home-road dichotomy for the Saints and dome teams have a terrible track record in cold weather games. Stopping the run isn't something that New Orleans does well, and now they are tasked with slowing down the league's leading rusher, behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

As long as Philly stays committed to the ground game, everything else should fall into place. I'll roll with them for the win and cover.

NFL Pick: PHI -2.5.

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