Premium Preview: Eagles / Saints

Saturday night's all right for fightin'! The Eagles look to rock and roll in the Big Easy as they look to advance to the NFC Championship game. After a tough loss to the Saints almost three months ago, the Eagles look to show that they're a different team.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (10-6)

Saints Game Plan:
The Saints, who finished the season leading the NFL in total yards and in passing offense, had much success throwing the ball in their 27-24 win over the Eagles on Oct. 15. So it wouldn't be a big shock to see them air it out, especially with Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard sidelined by an elbow injury. Drew Brees hit on 27 of 38 passes for 275 yards and three TDs in that game, so doing some damage - with or without injured wideout Joe Horn - will be their goal. A liberal sprinkling of Deuce McAllister, who rushed for 64 yards on only 12 carries in their first game, and Reggie Bush could open up the passing game even more.

Eagles Game Plan:
When these two teams faced each other in Week 6, the Eagles still had Donovan McNabb and still were a pass-first team. They ran the ball just 19 times in that game. Since McNabb went down, the Eagles have become a lot more balanced and likely will give the Saints a heavy dose of running back Brian Westbrook early in the game to set up Jeff Garcia's play-action. On defense, the Eagles won't do much blitzing against Drew Brees, who uses a lot of three-step drops and was sacked just 18 times this season. Their main focus will be on coverage and limiting the Saints' yards after the catch.

Matchups To Watch:

  • Eagles C Jamaal Jackson vs. Saints NT Hollis Thomas
  • Thomas, an ex-Eagle played well in the first meeting against the Eagles. But he's been off for four weeks serving a drug suspension.

  • Eagles CB Rod Hood vs. Saints RB Reggie Bush
  • The Saints likely will flex Bush out wide a lot. Eagles will have to put a corner on him, probably Hood, who will be starting in place of injured Lito Sheppard.

  • Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Eagles LCB Roderick Hood
  • With Lito Sheppard out, the Saints might look Hood's way a little more than usual to see if they can do some business there. With Sheldon Brown manning the other side, the Saints likely will take their chances with Hood.

  • Saints front seven vs. Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia
  • The Eagles haven't experienced much of a dropoff at quarterback since Donovan McNabb was lost for the season with a torn ACL. As a result, the Saints' job will be just as difficult on Saturday night in trying to keep Garcia contained inside and away from the perimeter of the defense since he's a bigger threat to run.

  • Saints RT Jon Stinchcomb vs. Eagles LDE Trent Cole
  • Stinchcomb will have to be at the top of his game to keep the speedy Cole out of Brees' face. With Javon Kearse landing on IR, Cole became the Eagles' top pass rusher and finished with eight sacks although right end Darren Howard, a former Saint, is just as dangerous as a pass rusher.

    Inside The Saints:
    When the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles square off in the NFC Divisional Playoffs on Saturday night in the Superdome, both teams will be thinking only about the present - certainly not the past.

    Nearly three months after they met in the same stadium on October 15, the Saints and Eagles play again - only this time with a lot more on the line.

    While both teams can take some things from their earlier matchup - which the Saints won 27-24 on John Carney's 31-yard field goal on the final play of the contest - it'll be a whole new ball game when they vie for a spot in the NFC Championship game against the Chicago-Seattle winner.

    The Saints know the Eagles will have a different look on offense with Jeff Garcia taking over for an injured Donovan McNabb at quarterback and wide receiver Donte Stallworth back in the lineup. Stallworth, who was traded by the Saints to the Eagles on Aug. 28, was sidelined for their first game because of a hamstring injury.

    This is nine weeks later," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "A lot takes place in the course of the year. I think the teams are different."

    Eagles coach Andy Reid agrees, saying the Saints look different as well. While they've had no major lineup changes -- except for injuries to tight end Ernie Conwell and wide receiver Joe Horn -- Reid pointed out that they've got 10 more games under their belt with Payton.

    "I just think the mere fact that they've played together a little bit more is giving them even more confidence," said Reid, whose team advanced with a 23-20 win over the New York Giants on Sunday. "They were kind of feeling things out the last time we went down there and they weren't quite sure what they were. I think they know now. They look like they are playing confident football."

    The Saints are playing with confidence, but they're also 5-5 since the Eagles left town. Still, they were able to win the NFC South title and clinch a first-round playoff bye for the first time in the franchise history.

    As a result, they're well-rested for their big opportunity. "I don't anticipate being rusty," Payton said. "We'll be ready to play."

    Despite playing the Eagles already this season, and coming away with a victory, Payton said his team can't afford to dwell on one game.

    "What helps is you have 16 weeks of games on film, you've got the preseason, you've got the game you played against them the last time, you've got the playoff game, in our case, that they played against New York," Payton said. "That's what you spend time on."

    Payton said the Eagles will be a formidable foe because they're on a serious roll, having won six consecutive games - including five straight to win the NFC East after trailing by two games with only four to play. "You want to be playing good football as you enter the post-season," Payton said. "You need to credit Philadelphia to be able to make an adjustment in mid-stream, especially (after) losing a player like Donovan McNabb. Jeff's done a great job of executing the game plans that they've put together. He's gotten the ball to his playmakers, he's made good decisions and he hasn't turned it over. As a result, they've won a bunch of games now," said Payton.

    Inside The Eagles:
    The last time the Eagles and New Orleans Saints met, Omar Gaither was a goat in a 27-24 loss. On Saturday night, when the two teams meet again in a do-or-die NFC divisional playoff battle at the Superdome, he hopes to be a hero.

    The rookie linebacker still was a backup in Week 6. But because of injuries, he was on the field late in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 24. On a third-and-long play, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson went to his dime package, but Gaither didn't realize they had changed defenses and didn't get off the field. Defensive end Trent Cole sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees, which would have forced a punt. But the play was negated because the Eagles had 12 men on the field.

    Given a second chance, the Saints picked up the first down on the next play and ended up driving down close enough for John Kasay to win the game with a 31-yard field goal.

    "It was just something that happened," Gaither said. "There's nothing I can do about it now. We're where we wanted to be, which is the playoffs, so we're just moving on from that."

    Gaither, a fifth-round pick out of Tennessee, will be the Eagles' starting weak-side linebacker in Sunday's rematch. He replaced Matt McCoy in Week 13 after the Eagles' defense gave up 801 rushing yards in a four-week span.

    McCoy, who was playing with a shoulder injury that made it difficult for him to get off blocks, wasn't the only reason for the Eagles' problems with the run defense. But he probably was the biggest offender at the time. So Johnson made the switch to Gaither, who had been backing up middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and playing some in the Eagles' two-linebacker nickel package.

    The Eagles still aren't a great run-stopping team, but since Gaither became a starter, they've managed to stop the bleeding. In the four games before he replaced McCoy, the Eagles allowed 5.34 yards per carry. In the six games since, all of which the Eagles have won, that average has dropped to 4.7. Most significantly, they've given up more than 22 points just once in Gaither's six starts after having it happen seven times in the first 11 games.

    "There were things we liked about Omar at middle linebacker," said Johnson, who still envisions him eventually replacing Trotter inside. "We just didn't know how it was going to work out at WILL. But it's worked out well. He's a good tackler. He's finding the ball. He's making some plays."

    Gaither is a smart kid who scored a 28 on the Wonderlic test before the draft. Historically, it's taken most linebackers a full year to get comfortable in Johnson's complex scheme. But this kid, who was a strong-side linebacker in college, already knows how to play all three spots.

    "I played a few reps at WILL in the offseason (mini camps)," Gaither said. "Knowing MIKE (middle linebacker) helps you as far as knowing WILL because you know the defense from the inside out. You can learn anything from the inside out. I just needed to get in some extra film study."

    If the Eagles hope to beat the Saints Saturday night, they're going to have to slow down running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, who combined for more than 2,500 rushing and receiving yards this season. To do that, they're going to need a solid game from Gaither.

    KEYS TO THE GAME:
    The Saints have to fight the temptation to launch an all-out assault on the Eagles' secondary, which will be minus its top cover man in injured CB Lito Sheppard. QB Drew Brees torched Philadelphia for 275 passing yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, but he's far more effective when RB Deuce McAllister is involved and providing ground support. The Eagles' defense might be short-handed, but it's built to defend the pass and coordinator Jim Johnson is among the best at devising blitz packages. Offensively, the Eagles will attempt to control the time of possession. RB Brian Westbrook is coming off a monster game, and the play-calling has been far more balanced with QB Jeff Garcia in the lineup. Garcia has been efficient, but he needs to be sharper this week than he was against the Giants if the Eagles are to win on the road.

    Notes From The ‘Nest:
    Eagles coach Andy Reid said Thursday that fullback Thomas Tapeh's availability for Saturday night's playoff game against the New Orleans Saints will be a game-time decision. Tapeh, who injured his knee in practice earlier this week, hasn't practiced and is listed as questionable on the injury report.

    Tapeh has developed into a solid lead blocker for Brian Westbrook and has been an important part of the Eagles' run-game success during their late-season resurrection.

    He's the only fullback on the roster. If he can't play Saturday, Reid said backup running back Correll Buckhalter would replace him in the personnel packages he plays in. "We're comfortable with him [Buckhalter] in there," Reid said.

    Asked if there would be a drop-off in blocking at the position with the smaller Buckhalter in there, Reid said, "Other than he is just not quite as big, but he gets in there and he'll bang it around."

    Reid pointed out that the Eagles use so many different personnel groupings that Tapeh usually is in the game for only 30 to 40 percent of the offensive snaps. The Eagles like to run Westbrook out of spread formations featuring just one back.


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