Now it gets serious. The big push toward the playoffs is on.
The Eagles survived a very tough schedule, with three games in the first 11 days, two of the best teams — Denver and Kansas City — in their first four games and the latest bye week in the NFL. Now they are rested and healthy again (except for safety Earl Wolff), with the NFL’s hottest quarterback and an increasingly confident young defense that has held seven straight opponents below 22 points. No other team has done that.
That does not mean it will be easy from here. Of those seven opponents, only Green Bay had a winning record at the time and the Eagles faced them after Aaron Rodgers was injured, at which point the Packers became terrible. In contrast, four of the Eagles’ five remaining opponents have winning records; only the 2-8 Vikings should be an easy win.
We interrupt this serious analytical blah blah blah to give thanks for how exciting and fun this Eagles team is. The best way to appreciate this is with a video by Jimmy Kempski, the funniest Eagles beat sportswriter: every Eagles gain of 20 or more yards, in less than 2 and a half minutes. Philadelphia has 67 explosion plays, 12 more than the second best; only 3 other teams have more than 50.
I was not a big football fan in 2007. Chip Kelly — not even a college head coach at that point — simply commanded my attention when he came in as Offensive Coordinator to supercharge the Ducks. I’m fascinated by his strategies and philosophy, but let’s face it — Chip Kelly’s teams are just plain fun to watch. And the players have fun, too. I’ve never seen a coach joke around with his players as much as Chip does. Despite all the money and injuries, football is still a game, and I love that Chip keeps it fun at the highest level. That’s my little Thanksgiving moment.
That said, the Eagles’ toughest test (in the rest of the regular season) will be Sunday against the red hot Arizona Cardinals, who have two great receivers, a rejuvenated Carson Palmer and one of the league’s best defenses, especially against the run.
Will the Eagles fledgling D hold up against a 7-4 team? Geoff Mosher and Reuben Frank of CSN Philly aren’t so sure, and point out that the Cardinals’ Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles had that job in Philadelphia last year, after Juan Castillo was fired. The team didn’t do well, but the point is that Arizona has a lot of inside info about the Eagles’ defenders.
Fran Duffy, who does excellent play breakdowns for the Eagles’ own website, points out that coach Bruce Arians is great at creating mismatches for Palmer against linebackers and safeties. That’s bad news for the Eagles, since those are two of the teams’ biggest weaknesses (especially with Wolff out).
There’s a ton of great analysis this week, since writers had the bye week to rest up, too. Tommy Lawlor has an excellent preview, where he makes a number of great points. For one, the Cardinals’ defense may be overrated. They’ve given up more 30-point games (3) and TD passes (19) than Philadelphia’s oft-disparaged D. Plus, they’ve only faced one strong offense (New Orleans), which torched them for 431 yards and 31 points.
This will also be a great test for Nick Foles. During the bye week Michael Vick returned to full health, so Chip Kelly made official what everyone could see on the field — that Nick Foles is now the starting quarterback for Philadelphia. Despite intense media pressure to make an earlier announcement, Chip stuck to his plan of waiting until both were healthy to make a decision, and more power to him. By the time Vick was healthy again, even HE said Foles should be the starter due to his amazing performance. Foles was named NFC Offensive Player of the month, and set the NFL record for highest single-month passer rating at 152.8 (vs. highest possible rating of 158.3).
The Cardinals are a big blitzing team, so Sunday’s game will be a great chance to check out Foles’ grace under pressure. You may have noticed that last year, pressed into starting as a rookie with a terrible offensive line, Foles did not do very well. Chip and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor have done a great job developing Foles’ skills, but he has yet to face a really tough rush.
It’ll be a great game. And hopefully, the start to a great surprise playoff run.
Mark Saltveit’s best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at the Oregon Ducks Stores in Portland, Eugene and Bend, at Powells Books, at the Multnomah Athletic Club M-Porium in Portland, various bookstores in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/