Eagles Fly On

This entry is late, so there’s not much point in going into heavy details of the Eagles’ win in Minnesota. To be honest, it’s a game they should have won. They were the better team. The fact that it took them until the 4th quarter to finally break away was mostly the result of a very lackadaisical first half (the kind of half they can ill afford if they hope to beat the Giants this week). But they came to play in the second half, completely dominating the Vikings on both sides of the ball. McNabb handled bad field position in the third quarter like the veteran he is, twice leading the Eagles on long drives that, while they did not produce any points, ate up the clock, wore down the Vikings’ defense, and shifted the field position. The Birds’ defense and Westbrook did the rest.

Peterson had a good first half, but he basically disappeared in the second half as the Eagles defense shut him down. Meanwhile, Westbrook’s brilliant touchdown run is the type of highlight that will be replayed for years to come. Yes, there was great blocking on the play, but there are only a handful of backs in the entire league who could have taken that screen pass all the way to the house. Okay, so I guess I wrote more about the game than I was planning to. Anyway, on to the Giants.

This is going to be a tough game for the banged-up Birds as they must now travel to the Meadowlands after a very physical game in Minnesota to face a well-rested Giants team, especially if the brutal weather being predicted for the game comes to pass. An optimist would say that the Eagles just dominated the Giants a month ago and they can do it again. A pessimist would say that it’s very difficult in the NFL to beat the same team twice in such a short span, especially a division rival. An optimist would say that the Eagles have been on a roll over the last month while the Giants finished the season 1-3. A pessimist would say that a bad weather game favors a running team like the Giants.

All of the above points are valid, but in the end this is a game that will largely be decided by the Eagles’ defensive line. In the first matchup this season, the Giants won the game by running all over the Eagles’ defense. In the second game, the Eagles shut down the Giants’ running attack and dominated the game from start to finish. If the Birds can shut down the Giants’ backs, they should win the game, because Manning will not beat them. Of course the wildcard, as always, is Andy Reid. If he tries to throw the ball 40-50 times in blustery conditions, it could get ugly. However, if he sticks to the running game even if it’s not working (as he admirably did last week), I like the Eagles’ chances.

As for my prediction . . . come on, do you really think I’m picking against the Eagles? Whether it’s my head or heart speaking doesn’t matter. This is a blog, not a newspaper. With that in mind, we’re looking at a close game, as every Eagles/Giants matchup seems to be. In a defensive struggle, I will go with the Birds’ defense, which is playing as well as any in the NFL right now, having given up 14 points or less in five straight games. The weather will keep the final score fairly low: Eagles 20, Giants 16.

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Rant of the Week: NFL Playoff Seeding

How screwed up is the NFL when a 9-7 team (Arizona) is hosting an 11-5 team (Atlanta), and an 8-8 team (San Diego) is hosting a 12-4 team (Indianapolis)? And even though Miami and Baltimore have identical records, Baltimore technically finished ahead of Miami because they beat them head-to-head, so that makes three of the four road teams this weekend with better records than their home opponents. And if the Eagles hadn’t blown the Washington game, all four road teams would have had better records than their home counterparts. I’d be surprised if that even happened twice in one playoff week before this season.

It’s a consequence of the eight-division alignment the NFL now employs: you get a weak 8-8 division winner like San Diego hosting a playoff game while New England at 11-5 is sitting home (not that I feel sorry for Belechick). I know such occurrences happened occasionally in the old six-division alignment, but that problem was largely resolved when they added a third wildcard to each conference. Things were running pretty smoothly from that point on until they decided to realign into eight divisions. Unfortunately, the NFL has backed itself into a corner. They can’t add more playoff teams (that would just dilute the quality and turn the NFL into the NHL), and they’ll never return to a six-division alignment, so it will probably become fairly common to see teams with double-digit wins sitting at home for the playoffs while 8-8 teams move on. We may even one day see the unthinkable scenario of a 7-9 team hosting a playoff game against a 13-3 team–it could happen, and that would be a major embarassment for the league.

At the very least, the NFL should rethink giving automatic higher seeds to division winners, because there’s no way that San Diego and Arizona deserve to host playoff games.

Sometimes the Long Shot Comes In

Who would have thought we’d be sitting here on Monday talking about the Eagles’ upcoming playoff game? Nobody. Who in their right mind thought Tampa would lose at home to a lousy team like Oakland, blowing a ten-point lead in the process? Nobody. Who thought the Eagles would put a spanking on the Cowboys the likes of which have rarely been seen in Eagles history? Nobody. The Bears losing in Houston wasn’t terribly surprising, but the chances of both Chicago and Tampa losing were pretty small. In fact, you probably had a better chance of winning the lottery than witnessing the confluence of events that occurred yesterday to allow the Eagles to sneak into the playoffs. Then again, it’s been that kind of wacky season (the Chargers rallied from a 4-8 record to win their division for god’s sake).

I’m not surprised the Eagles beat the Cowboys (though, in my understandable dejection after the Washington debacle I said something much different), but the way they did it was certainly shocking. Playoffs or no playoffs, that was one of the more enjoyable games in Eagles’ history. The Cowboys, with eight days of rest and a playoff spot on the line, flat-out choked like the frauds they are. Of course the Eagles had something to do with that, particularly the defense that is playing as well as any in football right now. It doesn’t get much sweeter than demolishing the Cowboys, especially given the bonus of sending them home for the postseason. I’m glad Reid finally discovered that Buckhalter is still on this team. He and Westbrook would make a formidable tandem if Reid would just use them. I hope he has finally gotten the message that you have to run to win, but how many times have I said that in the past? I won’t hold my breath that he’s suddenly a changed man, but we can at least hope that he’ll continue the trend for the playoffs.

The Eagles have been largely representative of this year’s NFL as a whole. One game they look unbeatable, the next they look like they can’t get out of their own way. Thankfully, against the Cowboys, we got the former. Now the question becomes which Eagles team we’ll see in the playoffs. When they play like they did against Washington, they are capable of losing to anyone, but when they play like they did yesterday, they are capable of beating anyone. And really, does anybody in the NFC playoffs scare you? If the Eagles can get on a roll with the way the defense is playing, they have just as legitimate of a shot as anyone. The Giants proved last year that if you get hot at the right time, it doesn’t matter how many road games you have to play.

As for the game itself: Minnesota is a very beatable team. Defensively, the Eagles just need to stack the line and force Jackson to beat them through the air. Peterson is a monster, but the Eagles did a good job of stuffing him last year, and I have faith in Johnson to come up with an effective scheme for containing him once again. On offense, they may have to throw more than we want them to because Minnesota is so good against the run, but it would be a mistake to abandon the running game altogether, so please, Andy, learn from your past mistakes for a change!

My prediction: I just don’t see Minnesota being able to put that many points on the board against the Eagles’ defense, and I think McNabb and the offense will do just enough to pull this one out, even if Reid goes brain dead and throws 80% of the time again. Experience wins out in this one: Eagles 20, Vikings 10.

Half A Yard Short: A Microcosm for the Whole Season

First, let’s face facts: the Eagles season ended in Washington. They’re not going to the playoffs. Tampa Bay is not going to miraculously lose at home to the hapless Raiders. And even if the unthinkable happens and Tampa loses, the Eagles still need either Minnesota or Chicago to lose. And even if the miracle of all Christmas miracles happens and both of those scenarios come to pass, the Eagles still must beat the Cowboys—and after watching that pathetic effort against a bad Washington team, does anyone believe that is going to happen?

The Eagles were already given the opportunity to control their own destiny when Tampa lost to San Diego—and they flat-out blew it. They came up smaller than small when everything was on the line. The game itself isn’t even worth writing about, so I won’t rehash what happened, other than to marvel at Reid’s undying stubbornness in throwing the ball 80% of the time on a blustery, windy day while giving Westbrook all of ten meaningful carries. This blurb from Phil Sheridan’s article says it all:

“Take away the two junk runs at the end of the first half and the Eagles called just 12 runs while attempting 48 passes (not counting two McNabb spikes). That’s an 80/20 split, if you’re interested in percentages. That’s just stupid, if you’re interested in adjective.”

I’ve outlined in several previous blog entries why Reid should be fired, so no need to go there again. This season has convinced me more than ever that Reid’s past success was due primarily to Jim Johnson’s defense and Donovan McNabb’s talent. Now that McNabb, several years and major injuries later, is no longer capable of winning games by himself, Reid’s shortcomings have been laid bare. I don’t know how many more times he has to miss the playoffs, how many more times his team has to fail to show up in big games, before Lurie will finally pull the trigger.

If I thought there was any chance Reid would be fired, I would strongly consider rooting for them to lose this week. But as it is, we should savor what could well be McNabb’s final game as an Eagle. The greatest quarterback in franchise history will no doubt be made the scapegoat this offseason—not the receivers who perpetually lead the league in drops, and certainly not the coach who thinks a running game is some movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. If nothing else, the Eagles have the opportunity to drag the stinkin’ Cowboys down with them into playoff oblivion, and that would at least be some small consolation.

Eagles Still on the Outside Looking In

Last week the Eagles pummeled the Browns into submission, but their third consecutive win still wasn’t enough to get them back to the inside track of the playoff hunt, thanks to Tampa Bay, whose loss to Atlanta just closed the window of opportunity a little more. The Eagles now must hope that either Atlanta loses to Minnesota or Tampa Bay loses to San Diego, because both teams have very easy games next week.

Things haven’t changed for the Birds—they still must run the table to have any shot at the playoffs, and to do so, they must play better than they did last week. Even though they blew out the Browns, it was a very sloppy game (they probably should have won by 40 points against a Browns that barely even showed up). Nevertheless, the Eagles should beat a slumping Redskins team, which (if things fall right) would have them battling Dallas in the last game of the season for that final playoff spot—and nothing would be sweeter than securing a playoff spot by sending the ‘Boys packing.

But for this weekend at least, the Philly faithful will be huge San Diego and Minnesota fans, because if Atlanta and Tampa both win, the season is probably over.