In the days leading up to their Thanksgiving night game with the Arizona Cardinals, it looked as though the Philadelphia Eagles were dead in the water. In their previous three games, they had lost to the Giants and Ravens and tied the hapless Bengals to drop their season record to 5-5-1. They seemed like an afterthought and briefly even benched starting QB Donovan McNabb.
But a funny thing happened on the way to being a 2008 afterthought. The Eagles won four of their final five games, beating Arizona by 28 points, Cleveland by 20 and knocking Dallas out of the playoffs with a 44-6 blowout win. Although they needed both Tampa Bay and Chicago to lose to make the postseason, the cards fell right for Philly and the Eagles come into the Metrodome today as one of the hottest teams in the league.
Much of that turnaround has been attributed to the play of McNabb. Had second-year man Kevin Kolb not been so horrible in his brief chances to play – throwing no touchdowns and four interceptions on 34 passes – McNabb may have been on the bench. He has been extremely efficient with the ball, throwing just 11 interceptions on 571 passes – an average of one pick for every 52 passes thrown. He threw for 250 or more yards nine times this season and had seven games with two or more touchdown passes – the Eagles went 6-1 in those games. While no longer viewed as a dangerous running threat – his 147 rushing yards were the second-lowest of his career and by far the lowest in a season in which he started all 16 games – McNabb has developed into more of a pocket passer. He set personal highs for attempts (571), completions (345) and yards (3,916) in 2008. In 10 years in the league, McNabb has developed into a field general who doesn't make a lot of stupid mistakes and will throw the ball away rather than force it into double coverage. If the Vikings are to get any turnovers against McNabb, they will have to do so by getting in his face early and often, because he isn't likely to give the defense too many opportunities to make a game-changing interception.
The Eagles offense is pass-happy, but that doesn't mean they can't hurt you on the ground. Brian Westbrook is one of the most versatile and dangerous running backs in the league. He led the Eagles with 233 carries for 936 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground and finished second on the team with 54 catches for 402 yards and a team-best five receiving touchdowns. He's not a 25-carry workhorse, but is what the New Orleans Saints have hoped Reggie Bush would become – a dangerous player who is used extensively in the run and pass game with about 20 combined touches. When the team is looking for hard yards, they turn to veteran Correll Buckhalter. Seemingly plagued by injuries for most of his career, Buckhalter ran just 76 times, but averaged almost five yards a carry and averaged 12.5 yards on his 26 pass receptions. He quietly gets the job done and moves the chains. The Eagles have a pair of fullbacks on the roster, but neither converted defensive lineman Dan Klecko nor pure fullback Kyle Eckel have been incorporated into the offense very much. This is essentially going to be a two-man show with Westbrook and Buckhalter.
It is somewhat shocking that McNabb was able to have his biggest passing season because his receiver corps isn't one that turns a lot of heads. Of his 23 touchdown passes, 11 different players caught at least one and eight different players had more than 25 receptions. The team was led by rookie speedster DeSean Jackson, who caught 62 passes for 912 yards. Although undersized, he has provided a lot of big plays – both as a receiver and punt returner. He is joined in the starting lineup by Kevin Curtis. A player who was offered more by the Vikings during the 2007 free agency period than he ended up signing with Philadelphia for, Curtis hasn't panned out into the big-play threat the Eagles had envisioned. He caught 33 passes for 390 yards and, for this year anyway, has been more involved in moving the chains than he has been moving the numbers on the scoreboard. What the Eagles lack in top-end talent they had when Terrell Owens was the go-to receiver they make up for in a numbers-style rotation. Former starter Reggie Brown caught just 18 passes in an injury-plagued season, but former Viking Hank Baskett contributed 33 receptions and fourth receiver Jason Avant added 32 receptions.
The tight end position, as with most West Coast Offenses, saw plenty of action as well. L.J. Smith finished third on the team with 37 receptions and backup Brent Celek added 27 catches. The Eagles don't have your typical go-to receiver, but with so many throwing options all contributing to the cause, the numbers eventually add up.
The Eagles offensive line has been pretty stout with a group of veterans that have played extremely well together over the years. The organization has put an emphasis on drafting O-line help early in several drafts and it has paid off. At the tackles, they have a pair of crafty veterans in 11-year veteran Tra Thomas and 13-year man Jon Runyan. Both are well on the wrong side of 30, but are excellent technicians that do their jobs extremely well. The line is much younger on the inside with fifth-year man Jamaal Jackson at center, fourth-year vet Todd Herremans at left guard and third-year man Nick Cole replacing injured Shawn Andrews at right guard. The Eagles have some depth with Winston Justice at tackle and Mike McGlynn at guard, but look for the Vikings to try to overpower Cole up the middle. Andrews' loss could be significant and the Vikings will have to find cracks in the front line if they are to beat the Eagles.
While the offense for Philadelphia has been somewhat erratic, the defense has been consistently rated at or near the top in many defensive categories. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has earned a reputation for unleashing hell with blitzes in which they send at least one additional defender on almost 80 percent of their defensive snaps. The pressure starts up front, where the trio of Trent Cole, Darren Howard and Juqua Parker has caused plenty of problems. Howard led the Eagles with 10 sacks, Cole added nine of his own and Parker finished third with five. They are all relentless and have helped make the Eagles one of the top sack producers in the league – averaging three a game. On the inside, the Eagles have a pair of blue-chippers in Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley. Both are young – Patterson in his fourth season and Bunkley in his third – but each has established himself as a big-time run-stopper. Despite playing in a division loaded with talented running backs, the Eagles allowed just 92 yards a game rushing and a 3.5-yard average – both near the top of the league. If the Vikings are going to try to pound the ball inside against this group, the may find the going a little tougher than expected.
One of the secrets to the defensive success of the Eagles has been its blitzing linebacker corps. Not all that well known to the casual fan, Philadelphia has overhauled its LB corps over the past couple of seasons. It is a very young group featuring third-year pro Chris Gocong and second-year men Stewart Bradley in the middle and Akeem Jordan on the weakside. Even top backup Omar Gaither is only his third season. Prior to this season, only Gocong had been a starter, so this is a group that is hyper-aggressive and all will be making their first postseasons starts. With so many veterans elsewhere on the field, this is one group that lacks a lot of tangible experience and, considering that they will be responsible for containing Adrian Peterson if he bursts through a hole, covering Chester Taylor on third downs and patrolling the deep middle zone against Visanthe Shiancoe and Bobby Wade, this could be one of the big advantages for the Vikings. They will chase down a lot of plays and come full speed on blitzes, but could be caught out of position and provide the Vikings offense with the big plays they will need to win the game.
While there is inexperience at the linebacker position, the same can't be said for the secondary, which is the strength of the defense in the minds of most observers. The Eagles made perhaps the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason by bringing in Asante Samuel from the Patriots. A superb cover corner, many teams simply avoid throwing his way, but those that do have been burned. Samuel led the team with four interceptions, including one he returned for a 50-yard touchdown, and dropped several others. On the other side, CB Sheldon Brown is in his seventh year and is a physical corner capable of taking receivers in man coverage deep down the field as well as helping in run support. At the safety position, 13-year vet Brian Dawkins may have lost a step since his younger days, but he remains a consummate playmaker as well as one of the biggest hitters at the safety position in the league. He is joined by sixth-year pro Quintin Mikell, who is strong in run support and finished second on the team with three interceptions. The Eagles have some impressive depth with former top pick Lito Sheppard as the nickel cornerback and veteran Quintin Demps working his way into the safety rotation. Deposed starter Sean Considine also figures in the mix, but allowed far too many big plays as a starter and will likely see limited playing time barring injuries. The biggest concern for the Eagles here may be the health of Samuel. Added to the team's injury report on Thursday with a hip problem, he missed both Thursday's and Friday's practices. If he isn't 100 percent, that could hurt Philly in the deep game, especially if he can't stay with Bernard Berrian on the deep passes.
The storylines of the game have been pretty well drawn out between the teacher (Andy Reid) and the student (Brad Childress). The last time the Vikings played the Eagles in the postseason, Reid and Childress were on the same sideline. This time, Reid is trying to reassert himself as the coach of one of the league's best teams, while Childress is hoping for a changing of the guard with the Vikings being anointed as the next big thing. Something will have to give today. One of them will leave with their internal bragging rights, but this is a game that promises to be a test of wills with star power on both sides of the ball. Both teams enter the playoffs on a roll in December and will have to carry it over into January with each of their seasons on the line.
Preview: Eagles have experience edge
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