Nick Foles Carrying Eagles Through Magical Season, but How Far Can They Go?

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Nick Foles Carrying Eagles Through Magical Season, but How Far Can They Go?
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The Philadelphia Eagles are 7-5, tied for the NFC East lead and on an incredible 6-2 roll.

Nick Foles, the quarterback many presumed would be a spare part in new head coach Chip Kelly's offensive machine, has thrown a mind-boggling 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions in just six games.

The Eagles were averaging an eighth-best 25.1 points per game coming into Week 12, per Pro-Football-Reference. Perhaps more surprisingly, the lightly regarded Eagles defense was ranked 15th in the NFL in scoring allowed—before they held Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals to 21 points.

These Eagles are less than a year removed from a disastrous 4-12 season, where they arguably didn't play even that well. Ranked 29th in both scoring offense and defense, the 2012 Eagles seemingly couldn't wait to be put out of their misery.

Now, the football-watching world can't wait to see how high the Eagles fly as Foles, tailback LeSean McCoy and the opportunistic defense continue to win. 

 

Nick Foles: The Real McCoy

Ever since Kelly took over the Eagles, speculation about Foles' fit within the offense, and franchise, has been rampant.

Back on Halloween, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com that finding a franchise quarterback was the Eagles' "No. 1 priority." Lurie said "we need someone to step up."

That's exactly what Foles has done.

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Against the stout Cardinals defense, Foles went 21-of-34 for 237 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. His career 61.8 percent completion rate and 7.62 yards per attempt would be impressive enough for a second-year quarterback in his second offensive system, but those figures are below his 2013 averages.

Coming into the Cardinals game, Foles led the NFL in touchdown rate (9.9 percent), interception rate (0.0 percent), average yards per attempt (9.6) and NFL passer efficiency rating (128.0). Foles hasn't been game-managing his way to wins; he's been shredding defenses downfield.

While it's hard to imagine Foles will keep putting up these mind-blowing numbers, it was harder to imagine him doing it to begin with.

NFL observers have been slow to credit Foles. They've lauded Kelly's offense, McCoy, the offensive line, sheer luck or basically anything but Foles' ability.

Yet against the contending Cardinals and their imposing defense, Foles put the pedal to the metal early, opening up the scoring with this six-yard strike from Foles to rookie tight end Zach Ertz:

After the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald evened the score, Foles led the Eagles on back-to-back scoring drives, tacking on an Alex Henery field goal and this one-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek:

The Eagles took that 17-7 lead into halftime.

With the Eagles defense having held the Cardinals' vertical passing game to just that Fitzgerald score, Foles and the Eagles took the first possession after halftime and widened their lead. Foles hit Ertz again, this time on a beautiful 24-yard seam pass that split the Cardinals' talented secondary:

The easy story ends here: Foles and the Eagles take a 24-7 lead, put it in the cooler and tie the directionless Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East.

To understand why the Eagles are one of the hottest teams in the league, we need to look at the other side of the ball.

 

A Credible Defense

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After the second Ertz touchdown, Foles and the Eagles offense drove for five straight punts.

Palmer and the Cardinals scored two more touchdowns in the second half, helping to bring the game to its ultimate 24-21 score. The Eagles offense gave Palmer the ball with two minutes, three seconds left, a golden chance to drive for a game-tying field goal—or a game-winning touchdown.

Instead, the defense forced a three-and-out, and Foles got to kneel out a victory.

As tremendous as the Eagles offense has been, and as fascinating a story as Foles' emergence is, the defensive revolution is more astonishing. McCoy, Jackson and Pro Football Focus' top-rated run-blocking offensive line (subscription required) scored points in bunches even with deposed starter Mike Vick under center.

The defense, though, was one of 2012's ugliest stories. Former head coach Andy Reid forced a series of square pegs into round holes, most notably offensive line coach Juan Castillo into the defensive coordinator position. The Eagles' two-year transition from a blitz-heavy 4-3 to a Wide 9 alignment couldn't have been a bigger fiasco.

When Kelly hired Billy Davis to import Arizona's 3-4 base alignment and switched out about six defensive starters, I thought it would require yet another year or two of transition for the Eagles defense to improve. Instead, through Week 12, the Eagles' 23.6 average points per game allowed is almost four full points better than 2012's rate of 27.8, per Pro-Football-Reference.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

At plus-four, the Eagles' turnover ratio was already 11th-best in the NFL; after snagging two picks off of Palmer and recovering a Palmer sack-fumble, that ranking should climb even higher.

Nobody's going to mistake the Eagles defense for the Carolina Panthers. Still, a big part of the Eagles' resurgence has been the defense's ability to keep things together in the few stretches Foles and the offense have faltered.

 

A Legitimate Contender?

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NFL teams, fans and media alike spent much of the offseason wondering just how revolutionary the Chip Kelly offense would be. Few, though, thought the transitory Eagles a serious threat to contend in the NFC.

In the last eight games, though, the Eagles have been as dangerous as anyone. Unless the Cowboys suddenly find a higher gear, the division is Philadelphia's to lose. Better yet, the Eagles have games against the Cowboys and Detroit Lions—two teams standing between them and a first-round bye—sandwiched around very winnable games against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.

If the Eagles run the table, they'll not only have gone from 4-12 to 11-5, but also have overcome a 3-5 start to secure prime playoff position.

The Eagles have flaws on both sides of the ball, and Foles still hasn't taken a postseason snap. If they win even two or three of their last four, though, nobody will want a piece of them. They'll enter January as one of the hottest teams in the NFL and—believe it or not—a legitimate contender in the stacked NFC.

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