A week ago, Eli Manning and the New York Giants were the talk of the NFC.
Oh, sure, Michael Vick got some good press for his rebound season in Philadelphia, and the Eagles really had a pretty decent shot at an eventual playoff berth. After dominant performances on national stages, though, the Giants and Green Bay Packers were considered the class of the conference.
Now may be the time to take a second look at the NFC picture from a bird's-eye view.
Vick and company steamrolled the Washington Redskins on Monday night, taking over first place in the NFC East after the Cowboys felled the mighty Giants.
Vick is suddenly the most explosive player in football again, and under the tutelage of longtime quarterback guru Andy Reid, he is more complete than ever.
Vick has at his disposal two strong running backs, a lethal receiving corps capable of hitting opponents for big plays at any time and an offensive line that excels at run blocking.
The Eagles defense is also sturdy, although not as much as it was during the glory days of Brian Dawkins and company. Still, the Eagles have the talent to challenge the Falcons, Packers and Giants for NFC supremacy. These 10 reasons illustrate why.
The 2009 NFL leader in interceptions has five already this season, and picked off Peyton Manning twice in Philadelphia's huge win Nov. 7 against Indianapolis. Samuel is an elite corner even at the age of 29, and his five picks for the year rank just behind DeAngelo Hall for best in the league—hardly fair, since Hall has gotten to play Chicago and Jay Cutler already.
Samuel got Eli Manning for the first time last November in Philadelphia, and will get a chance to help the Eagles vault into first place alone this Sunday night—at home again, against Manning's Giants.
Andy Reid is smug, disloyal and standoffish, but he seems to know what he is doing after all.
A month ago, he looked like a fool for mishandling his quarterbacks this winter. Vick was injured, Kevin Kolb looked lost, and although Donovan McNabb had done little to help his new team, the consensus in Eagles country was that Reid should not have so unceremoniously pushed him aside.
That was especially true because Washington and McNabb had just beaten Kolb's Eagles in Philadelphia.
Although McNabb just signed an utterly inexplicable contract extension with the Redskins, Reid has the last laugh in every respect. Vick has blossomed and become one of the NFL's three or four best quarterbacks, while McNabb threw three interceptions as Philadelphia stomped the 'Skins in Washington Monday night.
He remains prickly and difficult to trust, but the former quarterbacks coach Reid clearly knows what he is doing when it comes to passers.
Look, it's nothing against the Atlanta Falcons—who didn't love a good "Dirty Bird" back when Jamal Anderson was running wild for Atlanta in the late 1990s? The Falcons have talent at all the offensive and defensive skill positions, and they stand atop the NFC at 7-2 because of it.
The thing is, the Falcons still do not put the fear of God into anyone. This team can beat you in some ways, but you can beat them in some ways, too.
So goes the entire NFC. The Giants are obviously vulnerable when their running game cannot get traction because that stalls their entire attack. The Packers lack the ability to stop the run, a problem only exacerbated by injuries that have depleted their defensive front seven.
If the whole conference has holes, then the winner will be the team best able to exploit their opponents' flaws. For the Eagles, offensive and defensive balance help them do so.
The passing game, as explosive as it is with Vick under center and DeSean Jackson on the outside, is not the team's only offensive weapon, nor is their pass rush their only defensive weapon. The Eagles can beat you in as many different ways as anyone in football.
The Eagles still have both games left with the Giants and the Cowboys, giving them ample opportunity to:
1. Distance themselves from New York with head-to-head wins, and;
2. Pick up easy wins over the crumbling (this week's win under new head coach Jason Garrett notwithstanding) Cowboys.
Beyond that, NFC North leader Chicago remains on Philadelphia's schedule. That is a good matchup for the Eagles and would be a good win over a team far better than advertised.
The schedule opens opportunities for Philly to earn a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, which would be huge for a team that has battled chronic injuries to key pieces all season.
The Eagles offensive line has surrendered too many sacks this season, but much of that damage came with the immobile Kevin Kolb under center.
Since Vick returned from injury, the relatively low-profile Eagles line has done everything well. They block for runners LeSean McCoy and Jerome Harrison as well as any team blocks in the running game, and provide the time and space Vick needs to either find a receiver or dart into a crease.
The unit has had to overcome injuries to Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, Nick Cole and Max Jean-GIlles this season, but they all seem to be back to full strength and ready to dominate the ground during November and December.
Trent Cole has seven sacks this season and could be well on his way to the same strong numbers he put up in that category last season (12.5).
There are more important things than sacks, though, and Cole has become disruptive in the best possible way this season. He has done a great job of sealing the edge on running plays, becoming a more complete defender, and he has made plays with his long arms and athleticism instead of pure speed.
Every playoff team in the modern era needs an excellent pass rusher, and Cole is that guy for the Eagles. He takes the heat off an otherwise middling defensive line, allowing them to stand tougher against the run than they otherwise might. As a result, the Eagles have 26 team sacks, just two off the league lead.
He lost his job to Peyton Hillis and was subsequently cast out by the Cleveland Browns, but Jerome Harrison probably isn't sweating all that right now.
Harrison left the moribund Browns and signed on with the Eagles, who put him to his first extensive use this week to great effect. Harrison ran for 109 yards on only 11 carries, including a touchdown run of 50 yards that gave Philly a 28-0 first-quarter lead. Not bad, really, for the second string.
He is second-string because LeSean McCoy continues to emerge as a fantastic two-dimensional threat out of the backfield. He had only 43 yards on his 11 carries, but added five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
In total, McCoy has accounted for nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards already this year, catching a team-high 46 passes for 352 yards in addition to his 615 yards on the ground.
Between Harrison and McCoy, the Eagles have a thoroughly well-rounded running game that can translate easily into screen passes and motion offenses. Of course, they have a couple other guys who run the ball a bit, too.
David Akers has had, by his lofty standards, a tough season. Still, he has hit nine field goals without a miss in the three games since his disastrous outing against Atlanta on Oct. 17.
Akers has been one of the best kickers in the league for the past decade, and his veteran presence highlights a strong special teams unit.
Sav Rocca is a premier punter, and although it has not translated into any huge plays so far, Jackson joins Jerrick Calvin and Ellis Hobbs to form a dangerous trio of return men.
Talk about explosiveness.
The Eagles have strong possession receivers in Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin, but both can be dangerous when going up for jump balls in the vertical passing game.
That stretches opposing defenses, leaving ample room for playmaker extraordinaire DeSean Jackson. Jackson has only 28 catches so far this year, but has made them count for 602 yards and five touchdowns. For good measure, he also has 92 yards on 10 rushing attempts, scoring once.
The whole gang was on display Monday night as Vick found Jackson, Maclin and Avant for a touchdown each. The trio combined for 253 yards on 11 catches and had plays of 88, 48 and 27 yards.
The Eagles traded McNabb with the idea that Kolb would be his successor. They were wrong.
Vick has carved up defenses across the league, showing no signs of his age: He is 30, hardly a spring chicken in this league and a point by which most explosive speedsters slow down and begin trying to win with guile and veteran intelligence. Instead, Vick is as impossible to contain as ever.
Preposterously, Vick has accounted for 15 touchdowns and nearly 1,700 yards without turning the ball over this season. That is unheard of.
If the season ended today, Vick would be the NFL MVP with no close second. The Redskins got the full brunt of his brilliance Monday night as he accounted for six total touchdowns.
After his performance, no team is itching to play the Eagles and Vick come playoff time.