The NFC East has for a decade running been the tightest division in football. The fight for the division crown has come down to the final Sunday of the season three years in a row, it's been six years since anyone won the division by more than two games, and it's been 10 years since anyone's been able to defend its division title.
But based on their dominant performance on both sides of the ball and at every level in their unofficial dress rehearsal for the regular season Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers , the Philadelphia Eagles are on the verge of changing all of that.
|Eagles vs. Steelers: Complete dominance|
|Score||31||21||24-0 in 3rd Q|
|First downs||36||20||16-8 in 1st half|
|Yardage||482||309||251-96 in 1st half|
The Eagles are ready. There were concerns earlier this month about the possibility that opposing defenses might have been catching up to innovative head coach Chip Kelly, who took the league by storm with his unprecedented fast-paced offense last season.
Philadelphia's ready on both sides of the ball. There were also concerns about a defense that gave up a league-high 4,636 passing yards last season and 38.0 points per game during the first two weeks of the preseason. They couldn't get off the field on third downs and were being gashed as a result.
But the first-team unit pitched a shutout Thursday, with Philly holding Ben Roethlisberger and Co. off the scoreboard until late in the third quarter.
Foles completed 66 percent of his 29 passes, McCoy had 50 yards on only six touches and the first-team offense had 19 first downs, two touchdowns and a field goal on six series. Sproles had 37 yards and a touchdown on seven touches, while Maclin caught six passes in less than half the game.
And this might be a byproduct of Chip's offense—"It seems like the receivers have been open all day long," said NFL Network color guy Kurt Warner during the fourth quarter—but it's extremely encouraging that backup quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and G.J. Kinne were a combined 12-of-14 for 120 yards (good for 8.6 yards per pass attempt), while backup running back Matthew Tucker scored twice averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
But the defense was arguably as strong. The Eagles need third-year linebacker Mychal Kendricks to step up this season, and the former second-round pick had quite possibly the best performance of his career. A summary from PhillyMag.com's Sheil Kapadia:
The standout player was Mychal Kendricks. He had four tackles, a pass defended and pressured Ben Roethlisberger three times. Kendricks flew in on a blitz early and helped force an incompletion. Later, he blew by the left guard, and Nolan Carroll II came away with an interception. Kendricks hit Roethlisberger on another blitz and made a nice tackle in space against speedster Dri Archer.
A lot of Eagles fans are stressed about a pass rush that ranked tied for last in the NFL last season with a sack rate of just 5.2, especially with Trent Cole's best days behind him, but there were youngsters Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham picking up one sack each and a combined four tackles. Throw in a solid performance from this year's top pick Marcus Smith, and it's hard to dig up a single complaint about a unit that smothered Roethlisberger all night.
"Defensively, those guys did a really good job," Kelly said after the game, per NFL Network. "And the big thing for us is our twos went in in the third quarter but their ones stayed in and I thought our twos handled themselves fairly well."
So yeah, they're ready. That's why training camp and the preseason have been so beautifully boring in the City of Brotherly Love. No controversy, no injuries, no nerve-racking battles for starting spots.
As I wrote earlier this week, the rest of the division is a mess. The New York Giants are experiencing an offensive emergency, the Dallas Cowboys are experiencing a defensive emergency and the Washington Redskins are seeing their franchise quarterback take a preseason beating as they try to recover from a three-win season while adjusting to a new system.
The Eagles are in another league right now. They're moving in the right direction, and they appear to be peaking just as opening day hits the horizon.
And because they're ready, it's time to sit back and wait for Week 1. No reason to push things anymore. When the preseason wraps up next Thursday against the New York Jets, not a single key player should see action. It's not worth the risk to push these guys any further, especially considering that they suffered scares with both Maclin and McCoy Thursday night.
There's little doubt that'll happen, because that's what they did last year at this time, and they're a hell of a lot more comfortable in Kelly's offense this time around. We won't likely see Foles, McCoy, Maclin, Sproles, Riley Cooper or any of the starting offensive linemen until that Sept. 7 opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that's the way it should be.
|Last time they defended their NFC East title|
|New York Giants||1990|
|Pro Football Reference|
You don't win championships, let alone division titles, in August. But right now, Eagles fans have every reason to believe that the NFC East will be theirs to dominate in 2014. And after Philadelphia outgained a good Pittsburgh team by a 173-yard margin in a one-sided victory, it's tempting to start thinking about this team's chances of breaking a half-century-long championship slump five months down the line.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.