The media makes a point of letting NFL fans know that if their favorite team gets off to a 0-2 or 1-3 start their odds of making the playoffs are miniscule. It's what they do. The Philadelphia Eagles are a team that has bucked that trend. They got off to a 1-3 and were left for dead because the high-energy offense promised by head coach Chip Kelly didn't pan out early and the Eagles defense had a hard time stopping anyone.
But the September disaster has turned around. Philadelphia is on a five-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the league. They have gone from a disappointment to being alone atop the NFC East with their playoff destiny in their own hands.
The biggest change that has taken place has been at the most important – quarterback. Early on, it appeared as though Nick Foles was the odd man out in the new-look Eagles offense. Michael Vick was the starter and seemed like a glove fit for the offense. The Eagles also drafted Matt Barkley to be a quarterback of the future. But when Vick got injured and replaced by Foles, the offense caught fire. Foles has thrown 20 touchdowns and just one interception, posting an elite passer rating of 120.0. Vick healed from his injuries, but hasn't been able to get his job back because Foles has played so well that he hasn't had the opportunity.
One of the factors that has helped Foles be so effective is that the Eagles have the league's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy. He took over the league lead last week from Adrian Peterson and is having a dominating season. Not only has he rushed for 1,305 yards in 13 games, he is second on the team with 40 receptions. The Vikings can expect to see him touch the ball 20 to 25 times at a minimum Sunday and he was be the focus of defensive attention during the week of preparation.
The Eagles have been able to get a career year out of DeSean Jackson, who leads the team in receptions (65), yards (1,080) and touchdowns (8). The concern for the passing game was that the offense would suffer without Jeremy Maclin, who was lost for the season before it began, but the Eagles have made up for his loss by the emergence of Riley Cooper, who has caught 37 passes for 714 yards (a 19.3 average) and seven touchdowns. Throw in veteran Jason Avant and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and the Eagles have found the way to spread the ball around effectively and get the most of the talents each of them bring to the table.
The unsung heroes of the offense have been the offensive linemen. After an injury ravaged 2012 season, all five starters – Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson – have started all 13 games this season and have provided offensive stability. If the Vikings are going to get pressure on Foles, they're going to have to do it against an O-line that has hit its stride and is playing extremely well.
After a slow start, the Eagles defense has showed significant improvement. Their front line of Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox (and third-down pass rusher Vinny Curry) don't get a lot of credit, but they do an excellent job of setting the edge and opening the game up for the linebacker corps, which is deep and talented. Trent Cole leads the team with five sacks, followed by fellow outside linebacker Connor Barwin with four. ILBs DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are both technically sound, wrap-up tacklers who rarely get themselves out of position and consistently make plays.
The secondary is aggressive, but has been up and down at different times during the season. Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin are all solid cover corners who have combined for nine interceptions. Safeties Nate Allen and Patrick Chung are both battle-tested veterans who excel in the passing game by delivering big hits. They will occasionally get burned over the top, but have solid playmakers at all three levels of the defense that can hold together – as evidenced by the Eagles not allowing more than 21 points in any of their last nine games.
When the Eagles were 3-5, including a 0-4 record at home, many wrote them off as being dead in the water. But with a five-game winning streak they come to the Metrodome as a five-point favorite and the Vikings once again will find themselves in the role of spoiler looking to dash the postseason dreams of other teams. Had they played the Eagles in mid-October instead of mid-December, it might have been a different story. But the Eagles they will face are a far cry from the team that struggled out of the gate. They're a team on a roll and the Vikings may have to put together their best three-phase game of the season if they want to win Sunday.
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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