Today is one of the holiest days of the year, and it just so happens that it coincides with Christmas. No doubt, Eagles game day brings people together from all walks of life for the same unifying reason that transcends religious creed – football. Being that these two special days overlap, we thought it would be fitting to put together a Christmas wish list for the game tonight. If a Super Bowl is still realistic then the Birds need to deliver on these moving forward.
1. A bounce back performance from the defense
Last week was the worst defensive effort of the season for Jim Schwartz unit. Surrendering over 500 yards to Eli Manning and the hapless Giants is one way to suck confidence out of a fan base still clinging to Super Bowl hopes. Regardless of the win, it’s glaringly clear that a performance like that in January would mean the end of the road for the Birds. This is particularly concerning because any chance of contending lies with the defense.
The parameters for giving this banged-up Eagles team a narrow chance at a Super Bowl have been clearly set; beyond needing to secure home-field advantage, this team won’t be able to compete unless it’s lead by a dominant defense. In the Birds Roundup I talked about poor tackling and a soft secondary as the main concerns. I expect their tackling to revert back to the mean, as this team has been strong tackling all season, but the secondary legitimately concerns me. If there’s one gift Jim Schwartz needs for Christmas it’s for the defensive backfield to bounce back and prove that the Giants game was nothing more than a minor hiccup.
2. Clean game management from Doug
Let me be clear, I’m a fan of Doug Pederson and think criticisms of head coaches are typically overblown. But after the last few games there’s reason to listen to some fans concerns.
While some point to his play calling, I’m more worried about his suspect use of the challenge flag. He’s thrown it when he shouldn’t, and kept it in his pocket when he should throw it. I won’t throw a cliché Andy Reid comparison at you, I’ll let you make that call yourself, but his recent judgement on challenge flags and overall game management has been puzzling to say the least.
Point to play calling all you want, but to go from Wentz – who undoubtedly turns the occasional bad play call into “genius” – to Foles is a difficult task. The more pressing concern is that our head coach manages a clean game. As it stands right now the Birds have little margin for error if they want to make a playoff run, the last thing they’ll need is Pederson getting in the way with unforced errors. A clean game against the Raiders would go a long way in alleviating those concerns.
3. A calm Nick Foles under pressure
In a small sample size (5 quarters) Foles has exceeded most fans’ standards for him. But to be fair, he was always considered a competent pre-snap QB with a more than capable arm. The knock – and perceived reason for him not being a long term starter – is his poor post-snap reads and ability to work through progressions, most notably in the face of pressure.
Apart from a few glimpses of happy feet in the pocket, those problems have yet to show themselves on the field. The Raider front seven provides a more formidable pass rush* to test that against, and if “the book is out” on Foles, as some suggest, then it’ll reveal itself tonight. If he stays under control for four more quarters then there’s no reason to think that simply “getting pressure”’ is the blueprint for success any more than it would be for another quarterback – which would be a promising and welcome development for the Birds offense moving forward.
* Oakland has 14 sacks in the past 4 games
4. A dominant running game
I feel like I’ve been writing about the need to keep up a strong rushing attack all season but that need only intensified once Carson got hurt. Doug continues to dial up run heavy game plans behind a consistently strong offensive line. It’s crucial that the Eagles keep this trend going because if there’s a key to success for postseason offenses – especially those lacking their franchise quarterback – it’s having a reliable ground game.
Another wish some Eagle fans may have for the running game is that a clearer committee will shake out. Earlier this week Brian Cass wrote a piece detailing some of the issues of their committee thus far and the questionable running back rotation Doug and Duce have used. It’s not hard to understand the potential advantages of letting a guy like Ajayi (or whoever the hot hand may be) to get in a groove and stay in a rhythm. Although I don’t necessarily expect this to happen, it would be nice to see what Ajayi can do with 20+ carries. (He’s run for over 200 yards in a single game twice in his career – both times carrying the rock over 25 times.)
5. A win – above all
To be honest, a win should be at the top of this list. All four of the above wishes could go terribly wrong but an Eagles win would make up for it. The running game could struggle, defense be porous, Foles look like a deer in headlights, Pederson get in the way, and it all wouldn’t matter as long as the Birds found a way to win.
After the Vikings beat the Packers on Saturday the Eagles need this to secure home-field advantage. Much of the conversation on making the Super Bowl since Wentz went down has been predicated on securing home-field throughout the playoffs. No team wants to come to the Linc in January; a ruthlessly hostile crowd to compliment a ruthlessly dominant front seven has meant trouble for opposing offenses over the past two seasons. Foles and company will need to rely on a dominant defense to give them a fighting chance, and playing at home gives them the best opportunity to do that.
A few weeks ago the path through the NFC seemed unlikely without Wentz, but a win tonight and the NFC runs through Lincoln Financial Field, making that path a little more viable. The above four wishes would be ideal, but if Santa can only grant one – I’ll take a win.