Philadelphia Eagles Could Be a Second-Half Dark Horse in the NFL

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 5, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 03:  DeSean Jackson #10 of the Philadelphia Eagles leaps over the goal line scoring on a forty six yard touchdown pass against the Oakland Raiders during the third quarter at Coliseum on November 3, 2013 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This is a year in which everything in the NFL is wide freakin' open.

The league's only undefeated team, Kansas City, has struggled to beat Houston, Cleveland and Buffalo the last three weeks. Division leaders like the Packers, Patriots and Bengals have major injury problems; the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are 3-5; and other supposed elite teams like Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and New Orleans have slipped up enough to keep things interesting.

That covers every division except the NFC East, which is the most wide open of them all. And that's the first of many reasons why the Philadelphia Eagles are quickly becoming a team to watch as we head toward the home stretch of the 2013 regular season. 

Had the inconsistent, injury-riddled and unreliable Dallas Cowboys not put together a last-minute touchdown drive to salvage a victory against the 1-7 Vikings Sunday, Philly would be tied for first place in the East right now. The Eagles remain a single game back, but with seven to go. And based on what's been happening of late, it wouldn't be surprising to see Chip Kelly's team blow past Dallas and pull away from the 'Boys, Redskins and Giants between now and the Dec. 29 conclusion to the 2013 campaign.

Think about it. The offense stumbled in Weeks 6 and 7 but is coming off its second lights-out performance in less than a month, both against top-10 defenses.

Where the Eagles rank on offense, 2013
PPGYPGTO%Passer rating
Pro Football Reference

Nick Foles is coming off one of the most dominant performances in NFL history, and that entire offensive unit is extremely healthy. It ranks fourth in the league in scoring and second in yards. 

Where Nick Foles ranks in rate-based stats, 2013
Comp.%YPATD%INT%TD-INT ratioRating
Pro Football Reference

But Kelly's uptempo offense has been relatively successful from the get-go. Again, there have been some dry spells, but that side of the ball was never really the concern. Instead, what really has us thinking the Eagles could be ready to make a run right here and now is the fact that the much-maligned Philadelphia defense has suddenly become stout.

Seriously, stout. After surrendering 34.5 points per game during the first four weeks of the season, that D hasn't given up more than 21 in each of the last five.

NFL's top defenses since Week 5
Points allowed/gameTakeaways
1. San Francisco 49ers12.511
2. Kansas City Chiefs14.011
3. Carolina Panthers14.013
4. Cincinnati Bengals17.06
5. San Diego Chargers18.03
6. Philadelphia Eagles18.610
7. New York Giants19.36
8. Green Bay Packers19.42
Pro Football Reference

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades sophomore defensive lineman Fletcher Cox as the second-best 3-4 end in the NFL, behind only reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. The same outlet has Trent Cole ranked second in run defense among 3-4 outside linebackers. Cedric Thornton has emerged on the line, while Brandon Boykin has become a reliable young corner.

It's not a perfect unit, but it has a head-and-shoulders advantage over a Philly D that had the second-lowest 16-game takeaway total in NFL history and allowed a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-1 during the final 10 games of the 2012 season.

The schedule hasn't been overly difficult on the Eagles, but they still shut down Tony Romo and Jason Witten in Week 7, they controlled Terrelle Pryor in Week 9 and they allowed Eli Manning to complete only 54 percent of his passes for a total of two touchdowns in two separate matchups. 

A defense that had a league-low 13 takeaways last season has 10 in its last five games alone. 

The Eagles' remaining seven opponents are a so-so 28-29, but that is boosted by matchups with 5-3 NFC North cousins Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago. The advantage is they might face a Packers team this week that is missing Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews and is on short rest. I'm not sure the Lions are as good as their record, and they get them at home. And the Bears have been hammered by injuries, so who knows where they'll be for that December meeting. 

In this league, especially in a year like this, it's all about peaking at the right time. And with that schedule, with the momentum they're building and with the talent they have, the Eagles could be on the verge of doing exactly that down the stretch. 

Nobody was ever really questioning the personnel in Philly. The Eagles have the talent. They have playmakers and veteran leaders on defense, they have a steady offensive line with five quality starters, they have Pro Bowl-caliber weapons at running back and wide receiver, and now it appears they could have a good enough quarterback to complete that puzzle. 

That's one preseason mystery that could be solved. The other concern was in regard to the transition the entire team would be making as it shifted to a spread-based, option-oriented, uptempo offense and a 3-4 defense. 

The good news on that front is it has survived the most difficult period of that transition. It'll only get easier from here, which is why the Eagles might be in position to steal the NFC East crown from Dallas before possibly even making a ridiculously improbable run at their first-ever Super Bowl.

Crazier things have happened.