PHILADELPHIA — Sean Payton has plenty in common with the some of the fans who’ll be rooting hard to see his team lose.
Payton is coming home when the New Orleans Saints (11-5) visit the Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) in an NFC wild-card playoff game Saturday night. The Saints coach spent his formative years in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square in the early 1970s, and attended the Flyers’ Stanley Cup championship parade as an 11-year-old in 1975.
“There are a lot of friends and family back there,” he said. “The first pro football game was at the Vet. The first baseball game was at the Vet. The first college game was Army-Navy. The Flyers winning back to back Stanley Cups, all of those things were a part of my childhood and so the sports fans are amazing there, very passionate and a real die-hard fan base. That presents challenges when you play, especially in the playoffs.”
Payton got his first coaching job in the NFL on Ray Rhodes’ staff in Philadelphia in 1997-98, and then joined the Giants in 1999. He moved on to work under Bill Parcells in Dallas before going to the Saints and leading them to a Super Bowl title.
Payton has one fan on the opposing sideline.
“Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him, and he does it week in and week out,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “There’s a consistency to it, and I think they missed him a year ago, and now that he’s back, they seem like they picked up where they left off. I think how well him and Drew (Brees) work together is a pretty special thing to watch.
Here are some more things to watch for when the Saints play the Eagles on Saturday night:
DOME TEAM DISADVANTAGE — The Saints were 8-0 in the comfort of the Superdome and 3-5 away from home this season. They’ve never won a playoff game on the road, going 0-5, 0-3 under Payton. However, they won the 2010 Super Bowl outdoors, beating Peyton Manning and the Colts in Miami. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 20s at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles have lost six home playoff games since 1981.
“Obviously we don’t have a chance to practice in it,” Brees said. “We’ve all played in that kind of weather before, not on a consistent basis, but you just kind of make the preparations. You try to prepare for it as best as you can, but once you’re there, it’s football. It’s about execution. It’s about knowing your assignments and executing it. Whatever the conditions are, you manage that, whether it’s wind, rain, snow or whatever.”
BRINGING THE HEAT — Led by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, the Saints finished fourth in the NFL with 49 sacks. Jordan had 12½ and Galette had 12. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is known for calling blitzes and he certainly won’t let up against Nick Foles. The Cowboys sacked Foles five times and forced him into one intentional grounding last week.
“Rob Ryan is very aggressive in nature. They get pressure on the quarterback. They create turnovers,” Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “We anticipate he’ll come after us.”
BIG-PLAY BIRDS — The Eagles led the NFL with 99 plays of 20 yards or more, including 21 that went for touchdowns. Of those, 80 were passes and 19 were runs. Denver was second with 77. It was the most since STATS began recording the number in 1995. The St. Louis Rams had the previous high of 96 in 2001.
“We have done a good job when we throw the football, Nick is making good decisions and then we have guys that can track the ball down the field,” Shurmur said. “And when we are running the ball, we are getting the running back to the second and third level where they have a chance to make big gains. I think all of that is the reason why.”
TOUGHER THAN STATS — The Eagles allowed more yards passing than any team in the NFL and finished 29th in total yards, but the numbers are misleading. Some teams piled up yards in the air against Philadelphia because they were playing from behind. Also, the Eagles were last in the league in time of possession, so opposing offenses had the ball much more. Philadelphia allowed 22 or fewer points to 11 of the last 12 opponents.
“You can’t really look at the rankings and think you’re going to have your way with them,” Saints wide receiver Lance Moore said. “Each game is different. They’re playing at home. It’ll be tough for us.”
PASS-CATCHING BACKS — Brees uses all his receivers, especially his running backs. Pierre Thomas led NFL running backs with 77 catches and Darren Sproles was fourth with 71. The Eagles have to avoid mismatches in coverage so they don’t end up with linebackers on Thomas or Sproles.
“They don’t overload protection because the ball is out so quick,” Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. “That is why they are so high in their catches. They are a quick outlet. They have great runners and catchers.”