Surging Saints brace for desperate Eagles
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — If the Philadelphia Eagles are to snap out of their Super Bowl hangover and re-establish a measure of credibility to their title defense, this would be the week to do it.
The Eagles (4-5) visit the Superdome on Sunday to take on the Saints (8-1), whose eight straight victories represent the longest active winning streak in the NFL.
When the season began, the Eagles' visit looked like one of the tougher games on New Orleans' schedule. Now, odds makers are listing the surging Saints, who lead the NFL in scoring with 36.7 points per game, as favorites by more than a touchdown.
Still, the Saints sound wary of underestimating the team that upended the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl just nine months ago.
"They're still a good team no matter what their record is," Saints running back Alvin Kamara insisted. "They wouldn't have won last year if they didn't have the talent."
Kamara's take is no surprise to Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, who asserted that when you're the defending champs, "you get everybody's best each week."
Pederson even recalled pep-talks he gave his team last season in which he said, "Listen, if you want to be one of the best teams in the league, we have to beat the best. And I know teams are saying that about us, and we just haven't lived up to how we're capable of playing in a couple of situations this year."
They need to start living up to their capabilities now. A loss in New Orleans, combined with a Washington win, would put the Eagles three games down in the NFC East with six games left.
That makes Philadelphia the more desperate team in this game, and in the NFL, a combination of talent and desperation can be dangerous.
"They are a prideful group. They know how to win," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "They have a ton of playmakers over there. We have our work cut out for us and we know what type of game it's going to be. We know they're coming in hungry for a win. Both teams have a lot to play for."
Some other key story lines in the Eagles-Saints matchup:
The Eagles have scored only 21 points in the first quarter, including 14 against the Giants after a turnover set up a short field. Pederson scripts the first 15 plays and they have often resulted in more negative yards than positive.
Pederson said he bases his script on watching film of the opponent and tries to avoid repeating play calls and giving away indicators. It's not working.
"In the case of some of our struggles, it has just been our execution," Pederson said. "How we start games, that's where the urgency, I think, coaches, players, everybody involved really needs to sort of heighten, so that we can stay on the field and go down and score points."
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn't have to spend a lot of time watching highlights of Brees throwing interceptions or getting sacked. Brees has one pick and he's been sacked nine times, none in the past three games.
"He's playing at an insane level right now," Schwartz said. "Extremely accurate quarterback, smart, knows where to go with the ball. Still has good mobility, can buy time."
It doesn't help Philadelphia's case that starting cornerback Ronald Darby went down with a torn ACL last week. Jalen Mills, the starter opposite Darby, has been limited by a foot injury. Starting nickel cornerback Sidney Jones has missed the past three games because of a hamstring injury. Also, starting safety Rodney McLeod already was lost for the season with a knee injury.
"We've got some young players that need to fill in and make their way in the league," Schwartz said. "Our job as players and coaches is work to find a formula that works for the guys that we have."
The Saints enter the game without starting left tackle Terron Armstead, who left last week's victory in Cincinnati with an unspecified shoulder injury. Coach Sean Payton declined to update Armstead's condition this week, but he did not practice and reportedly could miss several weeks. Filling in is Jermon Bushrod, who was a first-year starter at left tackle on the Saints 2009 Super Bowl team. He left in free agency several years ago, only to return this season as a reserve.
"For him to step in, he's ready for that," Brees said. "We're used to that and we're ready to go."
The Saints are rushing for more than 140 yards per game since veteran running back Mark Ingram returned from a four-game suspension to start the season. His return has eased the workload on Alvin Kamara, leaving both players relatively fresh during games. In a 51-14 victory at Cincinnati last week, Ingram gained 104 yards on 13 carries to go with three catches for 58 yards, including a 28-yard TD.
"I feel like we're getting in a groove," Ingram said. "We have a great team, we have great players, and I just want to be on point so I can help us win."
The Saints have given 34-year-old free agent receiver Brandon Marshall a chance to join their prolific passing game . The 6-foot-5 Marshall has had eight 1,000-yard seasons, but he didn't fit in with Seattle, which released him seven games into the season. Time will tell how he meshes with the record-setting Brees.