Eagles bring ‘a different team’ into rematch with Saints

PHILADELPHIA — Shortly after flipping off his former coach, Sean Payton, for running up the score, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins got dressed and exited the visitors’ locker room at the Superdome without saying a word. Considering Jenkins usually stands at his locker until every last question has been exhausted, that was saying something.

He spoke tersely to a couple of reporters who caught up with him in the corridor before he headed for the bus, clearly stinging from an embarrassing 48-7 loss to his former team.

“It was one of those things that I didn’t feel like as a team we had a lot of fight. I would rather get thrown out of a game than just lay down and take it,” Jenkins said later that week. “At this point in time, we need to figure some things out about ourselves.”

Well, they have. The Eagles were 4-6 following that Week 11 loss. They have won six of seven since, including a 16-15 thriller against the Chicago Bears over the weekend to set up a rematch with the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET).

“I think everyone knows what happened last time,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said. “That was probably the most humbling game I’ve ever played in. Phenomenal football team. The No. 1 seed for a reason. At the same time, no one expected us to be here. We’re playing with house money right now. We’re focusing on going 1-0 every week.”

The 41-point loss was the worst by a reigning Super Bowl champion. The Eagles’ defense was gashed for 546 yards, as Drew Brees sliced up a makeshift secondary for 363 yards and four touchdowns.

The defense has stabilized since then, yielding under 19 points on average over the past seven games. Rookie corner Avonte Maddox and veteran slot CB Cre’von LeBlanc have helped solidify the back end. Jim Schwartz’s unit has tackled better, played with more aggressiveness and gotten healthy in the turnover department, summoning a “we’ve got to take everything” mentality symbolized in the ski masks they wear on the sideline after a big play.

“I think we’re a different football team now than we were then,” said coach Doug Pederson, “and you know, we’ve just got to put a good plan together in all three phases and, you know, go back down there. We’re on the road. It’s going to be in a dome. It’s going to be loud again, all those things. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”

The Eagles’ offense has been much better since that matchup as well. Philly averaged 20.5 points per game in its first 10 games compared with 27 points per game in its final six regular-season games. Nick Foles has a good bit to do with that. He led the NFL in completion percentage and yards over the final three regular-season games in place of the injured Carson Wentz — all wins.

“It wasn’t a good game for us but at the same time, the thing that impresses me about my team is even in those moments where it wasn’t a good game for us, we still stuck together,” Foles said. “So it’s going to be a tall task this week. New Orleans, they had a bye week and they are a tremendous team. They had an amazing season but you know, I love these guys that I get to go play with. I know we’re ready for this week. Just one day at a time. Now we get to go back home, get a little sleep, get our bodies ready to roll again.”

The Eagles have gotten healthier in recent weeks. Darren Sproles‘ return from a hamstring injury has given the offense a jolt, and the offensive and defensive lines have rounded into form after being banged up for much of the year.

Put it all together, and you have an Eagles team that is peaking, and feeling much better about itself than it did back in November in New Orleans. That game proved to be a pivotal moment in the season.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Jenkins said, when asked if he thought a rematch with the Saints was possible back then. “At that point in time, obviously, that’s the low point of our season, but at no point did we doubt that we have the locker room, we just knew that we had to put it together. Since then, I think we responded and earned our opportunity to go back down there.”

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