The Eagles and Saints will take the field on Sunday afternoon in New Orleans with a trip to the NFC Championship Game at stake, and this showdown is not without plenty of storylines. Alvin Kamara’s borderline obsessive anti-Eagles shit-talking, ski mask wars, the continuation of Nick Foles flashing his sizable poise and Sean Payton’s cash stacks locker room stunt have combined to give this game no shortage of drama. Juicy context aside, the main question for fans and bettors is this—will the highly-anticipated rematch between these two teams be any different than the first meeting? Much has changed for both squads since the November beat down in which the Saints blew the Eagles out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a 48-7 rout, so let’s unpack the intangibles, trends, and matchups in search of identifying the winning side.
It Has Happened Before
The most difficult thing about betting on the Eagles in this one is that those who back the team with a rooting or betting interest watched the sum of all fears play out before them in that blowout loss. It’s easy to say, “Well, this time around the Eagles have Foles, it’s the postseason, they have a totally different defense, different vibe, etc.” While all of that may be true, such a thorough ass-kicking understandably creates natural pause. Will those changes bridge a 41-point gap?
Alvin Kamara was NOT CAPPIN 🤐 when he said the Saints would’ve BEAT TF outta the Eagles last szn 👀 pic.twitter.com/78uOvpo1w1
— VERSACEBOYENT (@VersaceBoyEnt2) November 19, 2018
The first thing to consider is that regular season outcomes aren’t necessarily reliable predictors of postseason outcomes. The Eagles need not look beyond their own playoff history for proof. In 2002, the Eagles handled the Buccaneers in October of the regular season, only to lose the postseason rematch three months later. It was the same story in 2008 when the Eagles obliterated the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night in a 28-point win before going on to lose the NFC Championship Game in Arizona as a 3.5-point road favorite.
We have also seen the Saints stumble in the postseason despite having great expectations. Consider that in 2011 New Orleans racked up 13 wins on their way to winning the NFC South, but then went on to lose to the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round as a road favorite. The Saints scored at least 40 points in their previous four contests leading up to that game, and Drew Brees threw for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns that season. None of it mattered. In fact, the Saints have failed to even reach the NFC Championship Game in any of their four subsequent postseason trips after their 2009 Super Bowl season.
While it’s not often that a team loses by 40 points and then gets a shot at a playoff rematch, there is precedent of revenge in this situation. In 2010, the Jets traveled to Gillette Stadium and were railroaded by the Patriots in a 45-3 shelling, but went back to Foxborough the following month and won to advance to the AFC Championship Game. To reiterate, Mark Sanchez beat Tom Brady. In the playoffs. And while this is the only time in NFL history that a team lost a regular season game by 40+ points and then scored postseason revenge, I’m not sure that an Eagles win requires an act of God. Yeah, the odds are long for the Eagles this week, but since when does that matter to them?
The Eagles appear to be a markedly better team this time around. Leading into the first matchup, the defending champs looked unsteady, having failed to win back-to-back games at that point in the season. The Eagles were reeling, coming off a surprising loss at home as a big favorite over the Cowboys. Fast-forward nearly two months and they are winners of four-straight and six of their last seven games. There is a new quarterback, and with him, it would seem there’s also a new feel and confidence about the team, but the Eagles’ transformation isn’t just about mojo or magic.
The NFL officially changes Cody Parkey's missed field goal to a blocked kick by Treyvon Hester
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 7, 2019
OK. Maybe there’s just a little magic. But let’s look at what else is different.
Consider the evolution of Jim Schwartz’s defense. One thing that jumps off the page about the first meeting was the performance of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The two backs combined for 29 carries and 174 yards. Ezekiel Elliott gashed a hemorrhaging Eagles’ front for 151 yards the previous week. Compare those results with what opposing backs have done against the Eagles over the last four games: 48 carries for 118 yards. That’s it.
Last week, Chicago’s Jordan Howard was held to only 35 yards on 10 carries while the Eagles effectively eliminated the Bears’ most dangerous offensive weapon in Tarik Cohen. That type of effort simply would not have happened six weeks ago. Part of this improvement can be attributed to the continued high-level play of safety Malcom Jenkins and the recent improved performance of players like linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc, but the other part is that the personnel is simply better now.
Chandon Sullivan and De’Vante Bausby played a combined 50 snaps in the first meeting, neither player is any longer on the active roster. Sidney Jones, who was some combination of injured and plain awful in that game, also isn’t expected to play (though he did appear at practice Thursday). The Eagles’ secondary, while still a vulnerable group that figures to struggle some on Sunday, has benefited in recent weeks from the late-season growth of Maddox (Allen Robinson double moves aside) and better play from Rasul Douglas.
At the time of the first meeting, the Saints were averaging 14.7 more points per game than the Eagles, but get this–over each of the two teams’ past seven games, it’s the Eagles (25.4 ppg) that are actually outscoring the Saints (24.8 ppg). Go figure. And on that note, there’s been substantial improvement in terms of the Eagles’ passing output during that stretch:
First 10 games: 68.8 completion percentage, 95.7 passer rating, 3.1 sacks allowed per game, 20.5 points per game
Last 7 games: 71.7 completion percentage, 104.8 passer rating, 1.4 sacks allowed per game, 25.4 points per game
I’m not going to waste time here debating the merits of Carson Wentz and Foles. I think everybody has had enough of that exercise, so whatever amount of this increased output you want to chalk up to the quarterback switch is on you. Beyond quarterback play, the return of Darren Sproles and improved play by the Eagles’ offensive line have each made a huge difference. You have probably heard by now that the unit held Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, and Khalil Mack to a combined 0 sacks, but it’s worth repeating and illustrates just how good the group has been. They will need a similar performance this week against Cameron Jordan and a formidable Saints defense that has generated 49 sacks this season.
Very much a key to this game will be the Eagles’ ability to sustain drives. They were only 3-10 on 3rd down conversions in the first matchup and were 0-2 on fourth down. The Eagles were 6-13 on 3rd down and 1-1 on 4th down a week ago against the Bears’ top-ranked defense.
Carson Wentz to Golden Tate after scoring the 4th and goal touchdown:
“That route was NASTY!” 🦅🔥
— Eagles Nation (1-0) (@PHLEaglesNation) January 9, 2019
If they can replicate a similar performance on do-or-die downs this week, they are going to find themselves in the game late.
Still Up Against It
Drew Brees started the season with 29 touchdown passes to only two interceptions over his first 11 games, but followed that hot start with only three touchdowns and three interceptions over his final four games. Still, it would probably be foolish to assume that Brees will be anything other than excellent on Sunday.
While there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the Eagles’ ability to pull an upset, it’s of particular concern that Brees has thrown 21 touchdowns and only one interception while averaging 9.5 yards per attempt in seven home games this season. The Saints’ firepower and talent should not be undersold. The Eagles are still up against it on Sunday afternoon.
Philadelphia opened as a consensus 10-point underdog, but that line has since been bet down, making the Saints an 8-point favorite at most sportsbooks. As of Friday afternoon, 55% of the total point spread bets and 68% of the point spread money backs the Eagles. In terms of the total, 72% of the bets and an overwhelming 97% of the money is on the over.
So where’s the value? Those looking to take the Eagles with the points can head to DraftKings, FanDuel, BetStarsNJ, or SugarHouse. All of New Jersey’s legal sports betting apps have the Eagles at +8 (-110). If you’re on the Saints, you can also get the same price (-110) at any of those books. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to grab the Eagles on the moneyline, you should head to FanDuel and get them at +320 because they are currently offering a considerably better payout than the competition.
Totals bettors on the over should head to DraftKings or SugarHouse and get it at 51 (-120), while those on the under can grab it at 51.5 (-110) with FanDuel or BetStarsNJ.
Betting Trends to Know
Nick Foles is 10-2 overall as a starting quarterback in his second stint with the Eagles. He’s 6-1 straight-up and against the spread as an underdog, with the lone loss coming in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Cowboys last season. As a starter this season, he’s 5-1 SU and 4-1-1 ATS. The loss came back in Week 2 when the Eagles lost their starting running back (Jay Ajayi) and a starting wide receiver (Mike Wallace) early on and were already without Alshon Jeffery. Foles completed 73% of his passes for 334 yards in that contest. He did have Josh Perkins, though…
Quite literally, Foles has been money in contests that either are, or essentially amount to elimination games over the past two seasons, going 7-0 in such games. Included in the wins are triumphs over the 10-6 Falcons, 13-3 Vikings, 13-3 Patriots, 13-3 Rams, 11-5 Texans, and 12-4 Bears. Not bad.
The Eagles are 5-4 ATS away from Lincoln Financial Field this season, including 5-2 ATS over their past seven contests. The Saints aren’t unbeatable at home, but they are damn good. Dating back to last season, New Orleans is 14-2 SU at home. The Saints are also 7-1 SU and 4-4 ATS at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season.
New Orleans had the NFL’s second-best record against the number at 10-6 this season (behind only Chicago), but it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for those backing the Saints. They failed to cash their first two games of the season before ripping off nine-consecutive covers. They are one of only three teams since 2003 to accomplish such a feat. They stumbled late, however, going 1-4 ATS to close the season. Surprisingly, that may not be a good thing for those backing the Eagles. The last nine teams that failed to cover in any of their final three games entering the postseason are 7-2 SU and 8-1 ATS in their first playoff game. In many cases, those teams covered the spread with ease. Also of concern for those backing the Eagles is Sean Payton’s 5-0 home playoff record and that New Orleans was both 3-1 SU and ATS in the regular season against 2018 postseason qualifiers.
Over the past two seasons, underdogs are 15-1 ATS in the postseason. In last year’s divisional round, underdogs were 3-1 ATS and 2-2 SU. I do wonder if the market is about to correct itself. Arguments could be made for double-digit wins by any of the four favorites this weekend, but these the lines seem underdog-friendly. Are the books overvaluing underdogs as a trap? After all, this run on dogs can’t keep up. Can it?
Also of note, several sportsbooks have recently experienced an increase in the amount of moneyline bets on underdogs, and I would expect this trend to continue this week with the Eagles, Chargers, Colts, and Cowboys on the board. That said, the best possible outcome for most books will be if the favorites win outright but fail to cover. That’s something I could see playing out in multiple games this weekend.
The Eagles have no doubt improved, but what about the Saints? Was their late season malaise a product of boredom, or was it a warning of what’s to come? Frankly, they haven’t played a crisp football game since Thanksgiving night. What’s more, three weeks will have passed since the Saints tried to win a football game. I expect that to have some impact early on.
I also happen to think Sean Payton is a bit of a fraud. He’s had a future Hall of Fame quarterback since he arrived in New Orleans in 2006 and has managed to win only a single title. Imagine this: Doug Pederson exists another 10 years as the Eagles head coach, but fails to win another championship. He’ll be crucified at that point, yet Payton is slurped by the media. At the very least, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that New Orleans has the coaching advantage this Sunday. I trust Doug Pederson to have this team physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared. And I trust Nick Foles—there’s simply no reason not to trust him. If the Eagles can survive the first 20 minutes and the raucous energy of the home crowd, something they showed they could do in a hostile environment a week ago, I think they have a realistic chance to win the game outright.
I’m going to grab the eight points and roll with the team that has been a historically excellent underdog. I’ve got the Eagles +8.