At this point, it's hard not to consider the Philadelphia Eagles as a Super Bowl dark horse in the NFC. Philadelphia has a productive, consistent offense; a fairly hot quarterback; very few injuries and—a Week 15 hiccup in Minnesota notwithstanding—appears to be on fire at just the right time.
It won't be easy to slay the Seattle Seahawks this January, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where first-place Seattle has won 14 consecutive games, but Philly and its top-tier running game matches up well with the 'Hawks, who are at least slightly vulnerable against the run.
And if wintry weather factors come into play between now and Super Bowl Sunday—hell, even on Super Bowl Sunday, considering the game will be played in the New York metropolitan area this year—the Eagles proved in an epic Week 14 victory over the Lions that they aren't fazed by anything less than nine inches of snow.
But you know what you can't do in 2013? You can't win, or really even come close to a Super Bowl without really strong play at the quarterback position.
Look at the last 10 Super Bowl winners. Now look at their quarterbacks. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. The latest quarterback to lead his team to a championship, Joe Flacco of the Ravens, might not be on a Hall of Fame trajectory, but the guy threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four 2012 playoff games.
LeSean McCoy is a stud, and that offensive line is solid. The defense has even overachieved, which could hold up. But the Eagles can't be successful over the next six weeks without getting big performances from Nick Foles.
In fact, they might not even make it to January if Foles can't re-find the groove that garnered him NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors in November. And if that doesn't happen and they do fall short, a lot of what Foles did earlier this season will be wiped from the archives that most fans and many media members keep between their ears.
Between Weeks 9 and 13, Foles was quite simply the best offensive player in the NFL. But in the two weeks since that stretch concluded—coinciding with the start of December—the second-year Arizona product has cooled off.
|Weeks 9-13||67.9 (5th)||13 (1st)||0 (1st)||11.0 (1st)||144.2 (1st)|
|Weeks 14-15||58.6 (27th)||4 (11th)||2 (14th)||8.7 (4th)||94.2 (14th)|
Ranking in brackets (Pro Football Reference)
I guess this was not what the Nick Foles for MVP campaign folks were hoping for.— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) December 15, 2013
One thing I've learned covering Tony Romo and Eli Manning in recent years is that you won't be embraced as a quarterback unless you can lead your team to wins in the games that really matter. Elimination games. December games. Playoff games. Big performances in September, October and November are appreciated, but they're forgotten completely if you fall flat when the season is on the line.
Romo and the Cowboys struggled so much in December early in his tenure that he developed a bad reputation—one that he still hasn't been able to shake despite some quality late-season performances in 2009, 2011 and 2012 (he spent the majority of the 2010 campaign on injured reserve).
Manning and the Giants were so clutch down the stretch in 2007 and 2011 that it doesn't seem to matter that Eli is the NFL's active interception king. All that matters is that he didn't shrink in those moments that wind up being unforgettable, for better or for worse.
Fair or unfair, this cruel league and its cruel fans and media will start crafting Foles' legacy right here and right now. He's only 24 years old? No matter. There's no room for growing pains, regardless of the pressure or the moment, and especially in the least forgiving sports city in North America.
"I think that when you have success, people's expectations do grow," Foles said this week, according to the Associated Press. "When they see you play consistently well every week, then that's what they expect, and that's what I expect.
Adding to the intensity: Foles and the Eagles have to play a desperate Bears team in prime time Sunday night. Romo's bad rep has been inflated by miscues on national television, and the opposite has happened to Manning.
That game might not matter if Dallas wins Sunday afternoon in Washington, but in that case it'll be important for Foles to set the tone for a do-or-die finale in Dallas (also likely to be televised nationally on NBC). And if the Cowboys lose, the importance would be heightened greatly by the fact Philly would have a chance to clinch the NFC East at home against Chicago's depleted defense.
If Foles doesn't deliver there and he can't make up for that in Week 17, you'll already start hearing that his Cinderella-worthy midseason run was nothing more than a fairy tale. They'll wonder all offseason if the clock hit midnight on Dec. 15 at the Metrodome.
But if he does come through, the legend will grow, and Philly sports fans will enter the new year with a whole new reason to believe that their team's first-ever Lombardi Trophy is within reaching distance.
No pressure, Nick.