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Don't Discount the NFC East; Eagles Are Rolling into the Postseason

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 30, 2019

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) looks to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

There's been a lot written over the past couple of months about the NFC (L)East. Potshots have been penned. Insults hurled. Sarcasm and snark galore. By me.

It was really rather mean. Completely deserved, but mean.

Well, somebody had to win the NFL's worst division in 2019, and by virtue of a decisive victory over the New York Giants in Week 17, the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles are officially the least terrible team in the division.

The Eagles have been ravaged by injuries—especially to a pass-catching corps that's one injury away from holding open tryouts in the parking lot at the Linc. The secondary is OK on a good day and terrible on a bad one. Simply put, the Eagles are a flawed football team.

The Eagles are also on a roll, peeling off four straight wins to get into the playoffs. This is a team that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as recently as February 2018. They are talented, composed and well-coached.

And the NFC West runner-up who looks at that so-so record and thinks the Eagles will be an easy out in the wild-card round is begging to be even more disappointed than they were about losing the division in the regular season's final contest.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Folks have been counting the Eagles out for quite a while. The Eagles pitched and lurched their way through most of the season, hovering around the .500 mark. After a Week 13 loss to a bad Miami Dolphins team dropped the Eagles to 5-7, most assumed Philly was toast.

But a funny thing happened. Despite injury after injury to the Eagles receiving corps, the team started stringing together wins. Carson Wentz guided the Eagles to a comeback over the New York Giants in Week 14. A 10-point victory at Washington in Week 15. And then a massive win over the rival Cowboys that put the Eagles in a position where a Week 17 victory would punch a ticket to the postseason.

After that critical win over the Cowboys, Wentz cautioned, per Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports, that the Eagles couldn't afford to overlook the Giants—that the job wasn't finished yet:

"[We have to] just get back on and prepare the same way we always do and have no letdowns. It's going to take the leaders to make sure we're emphasizing that point. But at the same time, even just talking to a lot of the guys in the locker room, I can already feel that. I can already feel that no one's complacent now or feels like we won anything. We have to go prove it again, and we're excited for it."

If Sunday's win was any indication, the Eagles heeded the words of their leader. And make no mistake, this team absolutely belongs to Wentz at this point.

All Wentz did in his first full 16-game season in three years was throw for 4,039 yards and 27 touchdowns against seven interceptions with a passer rating of 93.1. It's the first 4,000-yard passing season in franchise history, but in today's pass-wacky NFL, those aren't eye-popping stats.

Vera Nieuwenhuis/Associated Press

Until, that is, you consider that no quarterback in NFL history had ever hit the 4,000-yard mark through the air without having at least one wide receiver who finished the season with 500-plus yards.

Alshon Jeffery paced the Philly wideouts in that regard in 2019 with 490.

That there was actually a time when people thought the Eagles should keep Nick Foles over Wentz is…something.

DeSean Jackson barely played for the Eagles in his reunion season with Philly. Jeffery missed six games and is done for the year. Nelson Agholor has been out for the past four games. Tight end Zach Ertz missed Week 17 with a fractured rib. Tailback Jordan Howard has been a ghost for over a month. Rookie running back Miles Sanders, who had exploded into prominence after Howard went down, limped off the field with a bad ankle in Week 17. Tackle Lane Johnson has been MIA since Week 14. Guard Brandon Brooks was carted off the field against the Giants on Sunday.

And yet the Eagles keep on winning.

Partly, it's because Wentz has been standing on his head, but he's had help. Every time one player has gone down, another has filled the void. Greg Ward Jr. has gone from the practice squad to the team's de facto No. 1 wide receiver, hauling in 17 passes for 175 yards and a score over the past three weeks. Second-year tight end Dallas Goedert has had a coming-out party, averaging six grabs for over 70 yards over that same span. With Sanders on the shelf Sunday, diminutive tailback Boston Scott piled up 138 total yards and scored three times.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

It's been quite remarkable. A display of teamwork in its truest sense.

Of course, the Philadelphia defense hasn't been sitting on its hands. The Eagles entered Sunday's play ranked inside the top 10 in total defense. A front anchored by Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox remains one of the better defensive lines in the league. Veterans Nigel Bradham and Malcolm Jenkins have been steadying forces at linebacker and safety, respectively. And while the back end has been known to spring the occasional leak, Philly's defensive backs have also made some big plays in big moments.

Then there's head coach Doug Pederson. It's not just a matter of in-game adjustments and play-calling, although the 51-year-old is excellent in both areas. It's become clear that no matter whom the Eagles play or whom the team rolls out in a given week, Pederson's team believes it can win. Believes it will win.

That matters. It mattered in 2017, when the Eagles entered the playoffs with their backup quarterback and many believed that an excellent regular season had been all for naught. It mattered when the Eagles traveled to Minneapolis to face the greatest dynasty in NFL history with that backup quarterback.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on from the sideline against the New York Giants during the second quarter in the game at MetLife Stadium on December 29, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jer
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

And it matters now.

Maybe all the injuries are going to catch up to the Eagles on Wild Card Weekend, and they'll look like the "champions" of a bad division. Maybe the secondary will falter. Maybe it's one-and-done for Philadelphia in 2019.

But these Eagles are battle-tested. They are familiar with the stakes and pressure of the playoffs. They are as good as any team in the league at overcoming adversity. And they've been playing in what amounts to elimination games for a month.

Are the Eagles the weakest team in the NFC bracket in terms of record? Sure.

But underestimate them at your own peril.

And don't dare count them out.