In some circles, the Philadelphia Eagles were predicted to finish last in the competitive NFC East, not because the team didn't have talent, but the perception was that the other three teams were all more stacked and loaded. With a win Sunday night, the Eagles will not only win the NFC East title, but be in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye. They have proved to be a resilient team capable of plugging in players when injuries have come in and, perhaps more than any team, have proved depth can be the key to winning a championship.
Those changes started – and some would say ended – when the decision was made to bench quarterback Kevin Kolb when he recovered from an early-season injury and let Michael Vick take over the starting job. Kolb had been anointed the starter after the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb and, while he didn't play poorly in his stint as the starter, Vick has been as dynamic a performer as there is in the league. In his last six games, he led the Eagles to a 5-1 record with five games with two or more touchdowns and has thrown for 242 yards or more in all of them – topping 300 yards three times. Just as impressive has been his rushing ability. He has rushed for more than 100 yards twice and, in the last six games, he has six rushing touchdowns. His eight rush TDs leads the team. There may be no more dangerous player in the league, but he is far from alone in the realm of playmakers.
Just as the team let McNabb leave, it also made no effort to re-sign veteran RB Brian Westbrook, another face of the franchise, in the offseason. They compensated by giving the ball to LeSean McCoy. The second-year running back isn't a workhorse – he has more than 16 carries just twice, but is averaging 5.3 yards a carry, has already topped 1,000 yards and has seven rushing touchdowns. What makes McCoy so dangerous is that he is one of the top receivers in the league with 74 receptions and has caught five or more passes in eight of 14 games. He is essentially a one-man show in the backfield. Backups Jerome Harrison and Eldra Buckley have combined for just 38 rushing attempts all season. The Vikings are preparing heavily for McCoy, but not so much for the rest of the thin Eagles backfield.
Historically, the knock against McNabb was that he never developed young receivers into stars. When he finally got the chance, he was traded and a pair of young wide receivers have developed into budding superstars. DeSean Jackson gets most of the headlines. He is a dynamic game-breaker with a penchant for the huge play. Of the 13 games he's played, he has had at least one catch of 30 or more yards in eight of them, including five games with a catch of 53 yards or more. Despite having just 45 catches, he is averaging a whopping 22.8 yards per reception – an unheard of number because, if he takes a bubble screen that gets blown up for no gain, he has to catch a 45-yard pass just to make up for it. The unsung hero is Jeremy Maclin. Nobody has been targeted more than Maclin (108) and he is second on the team in receptions (64) and yards (890) while leading in touchdowns with 10. While Jackson is the lightning, Maclin's contributions are just as significant. Third receiver Jason Avant has quietly put together a solid year as the team's possession receiver. He has 48 catches (three more than Jackson) and is a solid third-down option. Tight end Brent Celek has been the lost man in the receiving equation with Jackson, Maclin and McCoy stealing away a lot of Vick's attention. He has just 32 catches in 14 games and hasn't caught more than four passes in any game this season. Capable of big plays, as he showed with a 65-yard touchdown last week that sparked the Eagles comeback against the Giants, he hasn't been utilized as expected. If there has been a disappointment, it has been Celek, who has been targeted less and less over the last seven games (25) than he was in the first seven games (43).
The Eagles had to undergo a mini-overhaul of the offensive line when center Jamaal Jackson went on injured reserve in Week 1 with an elbow injury. Yet the Eagles have remained strong and boast the NFL's top-ranked offense. The thing that is likely to concern Eagles opponents is that, barring significant injuries, this group could be together for the next four or five years, since all of them are under 30. Left tackle Jason Peters and Jackson are both in their seventh seasons, left guard Todd Herremanns is in his sixth year and right guard Max Jean-Gilles and right tackle Winston Justice are in their fifth season. Replacement center Mike McGlynn is in his third season and guard/tackle swingman Nick Cole is in his fifth season. It is a unit that has enough experience to be a cohesive group, yet none of them are in their 30s. They could be together for years to come.
The Eagles defense is pretty middle of the road in terms of yards allowed, but much of the reason for that is that Philadelphia has been able to build significant leads in games, forcing teams to pass and give up "garbage yards" late in games.
Up front, the Eagles have seen their depth deteriorated with first-round rookie Brandon Graham put on injured reserve in Week 15 and DT Mike Patterson is questionable with a knee injury. The Eagles have always run a rotation system among their D-linemen, which has created competition and depth. At the ends, 10-year veteran Juqua Parker has beaten out Darryl Tapp for the starting left end job and is second on the team with five sacks. Right end Trent Cole is dominant, leading the team with nine sacks. Also figuring into the mix is veteran Derrick Burgess, giving the Eagles four pass-rushing ends that can be shuttled in and out. On the inside, they have a similar situation with Patterson and Antonio Dixon as the starters and Brodrick Bunkley and Trevor Laws cycling in as well. Few teams have a D-line rotation that runs eight-deep on a game-to-game basis. They can get a lot done and are always fresh because of the insistence on getting everyone time. Most teams don't have that kind of depth and it's one of the reasons why the Eagles have consistently been dominating defensively.
With LB Stewart Bradley out with an elbow injury, rookie Jamar Chaney will step into his role at middle linebacker. He will likely be a player the Vikings target, because the Eagles have a tackling machine in strongside linebacker Ernie Sims and an emerging talent in weakside linebacker Moise Fokou. With the talent on the Eagles defense, this unit is pretty average and with Bradley out and a rookie taking over, look for the Vikings to try to scheme ways to get him out of position.
As with other positions on the team, the secondary the Eagles will trot out Sunday night is different than what was expected. Expected starting safety and free-agent signee Marlin Jackson was a failed experiment – due to lingering injuries, he was placed on injured reserve in June. Starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs was put on injured reserve in September and safety Nate Allen was put on I.R. last Monday. With Allen gone, the Eagles have just four safeties on the roster. Three of them are rookies (four with Allen) – Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson and Jamar Wall – to go along with eight-year vet Quintin Mickell. The star of the secondary is Asante Samuel, who is having another Pro Bowl year. Despite being avoided by some offensive coordinators, he still leads the league with seven interceptions. On the other side, fifth-year man Dimitri Patterson has done a solid job replacing Hobbs in the starting lineup. He has four interceptions, including one he brought back for a 40-yard touchdown. Depth is thin. Sixth-year backup and special teamer Joselio Hanson works as the nickel back and rookie Trevard Lindley is also seeing time in the secondary in multi-receiver sets. Samuel is the star of the group and, if he was to go down, the Eagles as a team could find themselves in jeopardy in the postseason.
The Eagles have exceeded expectations this year and have as good a chance as any team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. How the Vikings can hang with them may go a long way to determining whether Leslie Frazier stays or goes as head coach. There is going to be plenty to play for, even if the Vikings are a 14½-point underdogs – one of the biggest point-spread underdogs they have been since the Les Steckel era.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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