The Philadelphia Eagles are now in first place in the NFC East, on track to make the playoffs just a year after finishing last and losing 11 of their final 12 games. They have their bye this week, well timed to heal up some injuries and refocus for the final push.
It won’t be easy. In December they have five games, four against similarly above-average teams and one against the sucky Vikings. As of Week 11, ESPN’s power rankings has the Eagles No. 12 best in the league (out of 32). In addition to Minnesota, Philadelphia will play (in order) No. 13 Arizona, No. 11 Detroit, No. 10 Chicago and end with No. 14 Dallas, probably for the division title. Three are at home which, strangely, is a disadvantage for this team.
There are reasons to be optimistic. The win against Washington was solid and every solid game eases concerns about Nick Foles’ consistency. By the way, Foles now leads the NFL in passer rating (aka efficiency rating) at 128.00. That not only beats No. 2 Peyton Manning by a full 10 points, it would be the all-time NFL record if he maintains it. He has 16 passing touchdowns and NO interceptions. Oh, yeah, and Foles (slowly) outran RGIII Sunday (!) picking up 47 yards, 3 first downs and a touchdown with his (very slow) feet.
Bigger picture: this Eagles team has a great offense and an increasingly better defense. It gained more than 400 yards in nine of its first 11 games. Only one team in NFL history has done better, and that was the 2007 Patriots, the best offensive squad of all time. The Eagles defense is quietly becoming very good, too; they pounded RGIII, who received the gift of four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. His knee looked perfectly healthy, but the Eagles stopped him from running more than 44 yards.
This Eagles defense is 2nd in the NFL in red zone takeaways with four — and three of those happened during the last two weeks (two were against Washington). I like that trend. And crucially, the offense is not turning over the ball. In their five losses, the Eagles are -6, but in the six games they’ve won, they are +10. That translates into bad field position for their opponents, who have almost always started behind their own 30, lately.
Another reason to be optimistic is that, despite injuries that kept Earl Wolff, Mychal Kendricks, Bradley Fletcher and, of course, Michael Vick out of Game 11, the players report feeling unusually healthy and energetic (all four should be back for the next game at Arizona, to boot).
Many players credit this to Chip Kelly’s sports science program. When he was at Oregon, the Ducks downplayed it and made it seem like they were simply conditioned better than opponents. In Philly, though, they are emphasizing the nutrition, sleep and water-drinking that the team pushes on the players, and many veterans agree. Demeco Ryans said, “For this late in the season, I’m feeling really great,” and Connor Barwin — who sacked RGIII at the Eagles 13 for a drive-ending fumble — added, “It’s the best I’ve felt on Sundays this late in the season. We’re seeing the effects. It wasn’t hard to embrace because it’s common sense-type stuff.”
Defensive coordinator Billy Davis said he’s “amazed at the energy and the lack of soft-tissue injuries,” and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told Tim McManus that he uses elderly (28-year-old) tight end Brent Celek as his measuring stick “because he’s a guy that’s a very veteran player. He’s a guy that gets out there and plays hard and takes a beating each week.”
So? How’s he doing? McManus says Celek “opened some eyes early in the second quarter Sunday against Washington by taking a Nick Foles screen pass and breaking away for a 42-yard gain and a near-touchdown. He hit a gear that we haven’t seen since . . . I’m not sure when.” Besides sleep monitors, urine color tests and motion sensors worn during practice, Celek say a lot of it is pretty simple. ”I mean we have massage people here every single day. We use foam rollers. We do a lot of soft tissue work, that type of stuff, stretching. Anything to maintain your body. Simple stuff, man. Sleeping.” It seems to be working better than last year’s Fast Food Fridays.
The Eagles started the season with a very rough stretch, 3 games in 11 days, and two of the league’s best teams (Kansas City and Denver) in the first four games. They won their first game and lost the next three. Since then, they are 5-2 and only seem to be getting better. December is going to be exciting.