Biggest Questions Philadelphia Eagles Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs
The Philadelphia Eagles have been on a collision course with the Dallas Cowboys for weeks. Assuming Dallas defeats Washington this Sunday—which might be going out on a limb right now—the Birds will meet the boys in Arlington, Texas, in Week 17, where one team will be crowned division champion.
The other will be watching the playoffs at home.
If there’s one question the Eagles must answer before the postseason, it’s whether they can beat the Cowboys, their main protagonist this season. It’s been the Cowboys they were chasing in the standings all fall. It’s the Cowboys who won the last time they met with first place on the line.
Dallas cruised to an ugly 17-3 win back on Oct. 20, in what just happened to be the worst game of Nick Foles’ short career. Philly’s offense was unable to mount any kind of attack, while Tony Romo overcame a pair of interceptions to lead his team to victory.
The Cowboys are a bit of a train wreck at the moment having lost two straight, including a historic meltdown against the Green Bay Packers in Week 15. Knocking off 3-11 Washington right now is not a given for them, and should they falter, the Eagles can clinch the division with a win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.
The Eagles still may need to beat Dallas on the final day of the regular season though, if for no other reason than to convince pundits that they can do it. Chip Kelly doesn’t sound prepared to rest his starters under any circumstance, and the Cowboys aren’t going to lay down.
That game may have meaning regardless, even if it doesn’t in terms of any playoff race. The Eagles should answer that challenge, along with five more questions, before we start talking seriously about how far they can go in the postseason.
Was Sunday’s Defensive Performance a Blip?
Everybody knew the Eagles’ run of nine consecutive games holding opponents to 21 points or fewer had to come to an end sooner or later, but 48? Against the Minnesota Vikings, who were without their best player and the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson?
With Matt Cassel under center?
The most troubling part is the way Cassel tore through Philadelphia’s secondary. The ninth-year veteran completed 26 of 35 attempts for 382 yards and two touchdowns for a 116.6 passer rating. He also ran one for six. It was only the eighth time in 66 career starts Cassel threw for more than 300 yards—he’s gone for fewer than 100 nine times, including the playoffs.
So was this simply a case of the Birds running into a hot hand, or is pass defense suddenly a legitimate concern?
There are some reasons to believe there was nothing sudden about this regression. Philly’s pass defense is ranked 31st on the season, which didn’t happen overnight. Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Patrick Chung have been under the microscope since they arrived as free agents during the offseason, while Nate Allen was labeled a draft bust long before.
The personnel may be underwhelming, and the unit admittedly concedes yards by the ton, yet opponents’ passer rating is only 84.6—14th in the NFL—so the Eagles’ defensive backs can’t be too bad. Then again, Cassel’s career rating is 83.1, and he completely dismantled them.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has two weeks to right the ship, and against a pair of potent passing attacks in the form of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
Is Nick Foles Postseason-Ready?
It’s hard to find flaws in the NFL’s leader in passer rating, but they’re there. For the first time in his pro career, Nick Foles is beginning to show some consistent regression. That may not be reflected in the numbers right now, but anybody who is paying close enough attention can see the signs.
An interception here, a fumble there. An uptick in sacks. Accuracy that comes and goes.
The last part is perhaps the most troubling. Foles still manages to keep turnovers to a minimum, although he goes through these periods where he can hardly complete a pass. Look no further than the performance against Dallas in Week 7, when Foles completed just 37 percent of his attempts in a loss.
The second-year passer hasn’t been completely ineffective for an entire game since, but he still has his moments. Foles only hit 6-of-14 in the second half versus the Arizona Cardinals, plus had a crucial interception overturned by a penalty. He was 4 for his first 13 with a pick against the Detroit Lions the following week, granted in a driving snowstorm.
Foles’ completion percentage for the season is only 62 percent, which while not bad, it's nowhere near elite territory. Some may look at this as nitpicking given everything he's been able to accomplish this season—NFL and franchise records, Player of the Week and Month honors, the cover of Sports Illustrated—but that all flies out the window in the postseason.
Winning in the playoffs is the only thing that matters, which is where Foles will face some of his stiffest tests to date. Will the way he's been playing the past few weeks be good enough then?
Will Young Players Fade Down the Stretch?
One of the most exciting aspects of this season for Philadelphia has been the contributions of so many young players, particularly from the past two drafts.
From last year’s draft, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry, Brandon Boykin and Nick Foles are all playing regularly for the Eagles now. From the class of 2013, Lane Johnson, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff are starters already.
According to Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com, the Birds entered this season with the 10th-youngest roster in the league. That clearly bodes well for the future, especially that so many prospects are already filling important roles. What does it mean for this season though?
In college, most of these kids would play 12, maybe 13 games in a season. The Eagles are heading into game No. 15, so this is uncharted territory for a few of them. Even the players with a full NFL season under their belts never experienced the intensity of meaningful pro football games in December.
Are they tired? Are they prepared mentally?
Chip Kelly does a great job of keeping players focused on the task at hand, and his sports science program has most if not all of them in the best shape of their lives. That said, you don’t know how somebody is going to perform in crunch time until they get there. The next couple weeks might be very telling.
Can the Eagles Avoid a Devastating Injury?
Every NFL team prays it doesn’t come down with injuries, but the Eagles have been downright good at staying out of the trainer’s room this season. Now before you go accusing Bleacher Report of jinxing your favorite team, some would say that’s no accident.
Chip Kelly believes sports science can provide some of the answers for keeping players on the football field. The sports science program followed Kelly from Oregon to Philadelphia, and while the head coach is guarded about what exactly all of that entails, he believes it can keep his players healthy. Per Phil Sheridan of ESPN.com:
“It's a combination of a lot of things,” Kelly said, “but I think part of what our sports science aspect of things is, is to make sure that time lost is the biggest thing you're trying to prevent. Just the little things: are we getting enough sleep, eating the right way, doing the other things. That contributes to it.”
“We don't do that just for the sake of doing it,” Kelly said. “We do that because we think there's a benefit to it. Obviously, the big issues you look at are the soft tissue injures, because those are preventable. If someone breaks a leg, someone breaks a leg. There's not much from a sports science standpoint or preparation standpoint that goes into the prevention of breaking a bone.”
It’s seemed to work so far. The Eagles haven’t suffered a season-ending injury since training camp, and only a handful of starters have even missed games. Whether they’ve been successful or merely lucky is in the eye of the beholder.
Either way, Philadelphia is hoping to avoid having key players come down with any long-term injuries. In fact, at some positions they'll need to. No way is the team going on any kind of a run without LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson, for instance.
Can the Eagles Finish What They Started?
The Eagles brought us this far. Now can they finish?
Few had high hopes for Philadelphia coming into the season. Most predicted a losing record, probably last place in the NFC East, a typical rebuilding year. Some of the most optimistic projections called for 8-8.
Somewhere along the way, Nick Foles threw for seven touchdowns in a game, the Birds won five straight and moved into first place. Expectations soared. Once an afterthought, fans are hoping to get a taste of the playoffs this season, even if the Super Bowl still seems unlikely.
Then the Eagles got burned by the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and those dreams almost went up in smoke. Had Dallas not suffered a dramatic collapse of their own mere hours later, they would’ve had a chance to clinch the division before the two rivals met in Week 17.
Regardless of what happens this week, Philadelphia will have a chance to advance to the postseason by beating the Cowboys. Depending what happens before that, the Eagles may even be able to clinch against the Bears.
The only way the Eagles are clinching anything or advancing anywhere though is by winning. Can the Eagles finish what they started this season over the final two weeks?
Only one way to find out.