It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty, but the Philadelphia Eagles showed a lot of grit and poise in grinding out a 24-22 win against the hated Dallas Cowboys, to advance to the playoffs in Chip Kelly’s first year.
Think about that for a second: Chip was never a head coach in his lifetime, until 2009. In the five years since, he took Oregon to four BCS Bowl games — compared to six top-level bowls in the Ducks first 115 years — and now he has advanced Philadelphia from 4-12 NFC East cellar-dwellers last year, to the conference’s No. 3 seed in the playoffs. That’s high-level success every single year he has been a head coach.
As he settles in with this team, the Chipisms are coming fast and furious. The team practiced outside in freezing weather to the dismay of reporters; that’s chapter 16 of The Tao of Chip Kelly (“You’ve Got to Practice In It If You’re Going to Play In It”).
At his New Year’s Day press conference, the coach dropped two more bits of philosophy. Talking about Brandon Boykin’s work ethic in practices, he said: “That’s what we preach around here. You don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to your level of training.” That motto is the first line of chapter 17.
Later, when asked what led the team’s turnaround, he credited the players, saying: “It’s always personnel driven;” that’s chapter 21. Having earned the trust of his team, Chip is taking them to the philosophical level.
The Eagles host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, January 4th, at 5:00pm Pacific Time, and Las Vegas has them as 2.5 or 3 point favorites. Since the home team routinely gets a three point advantage in Vegas, the professional oddsmakers are calling these teams nearly even, a slight advantage to the Saints before you factor in location. That right there is a great sign of the progress the Eagles have made this year, as they improved from 3-5 to 10-6, while the Saints cooled a bit from red-hot to just-strong-but-not-scary.
The home team advantage might mean even more than normal in this game. The Saints are 8-0 at home this year (averaging 34 points) but only 3-5 on the road (scoring 17.8). New Orleans has lost its last 3 road games, and has had problems with turnovers and stopping the run game — two Philadelphia strengths — in those contests. They also have never won a road playoff game in their history, if you put aside the Super Bowl they won in neutral Miami.
Weather will only intensify the home team’s advantage. The forecast for Saturday night is a low of 22 degrees and windy, something this dome team is not well prepared to handle. Nick Foles grew up in Texas — he and Drew Brees went to the same high school, in fact, where Foles broke Brees’ passing records — and he played college in Arizona, so it’s not like Nick is a mountain man either.
But the Eagles would be more than happy to cancel out all passing and let running decide this contest. While LeSean McCoy won the NFL rushing crown, and Bryce Brown and Chris Polk came on strong at year’s end, New Orleans’ leading rusher Pierre Thomas has only 549 yards and is on the injury list, to boot. The Eagles are strong on run defense and weak against the pass; New Orleans is the opposite. So the worse the conditions for passing, the happier Chip Kelly will be.
Philadelphia barely got by a scrappy Dallas Cowboys team that was missing starting quarterback Tony Romo and Sean Lee, their best defender. Credit defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who is about to get fired, with devising a great defensive strategy against the Eagles. Dallas has mostly sucked this year on D, but they showed excellent pass coverage, great screen pass defense, and a ferocious rush that had Nick Foles off balance, especially in the second half.
After a lot of discussion about how the Oregon Ducks destroyed Kiffin’s USC defense — dumping 61 points and 732 yards on his head in 2012 — it almost seems if the aging defensive legend (who invented the “Tampa 2” defense) devoted all his energy to revenge against Chip this year. While the rest of the league pranced up and down the field against Dallas, the Cowboys held Philly’s explosive offense to 278 and 366 yards in their two games, and 27 points combined (less than the Birds’ single game average).
Give full credit to Kyle Orton, who stepped in for the injured Tony Romo and threw for 2 TDs and 358 yards. He was confident, very accurate with his throws and got them out so quickly that the Eagles weren’t able to generate any significant pass rush. Jerry Jones has made a lot of dumb decisions with the Cowboys, and was heavily criticized for paying Orton $10 million over three years to be Romo’s backup, but that money was well spent in this crunch game. Orton kept them within a hair of victory until Brandon Boykin’s clutch interception with 1:49 left crushed the Cowboys’ hope of a winning field goal.
The Eagles have as easy a path to the Super Bowl as any team in the playoffs. If they beat New Orleans, the Birds will travel to Carolina. If they win that game and Seattle somehow loses (to San Francisco?), the Eagles will have home field for the NFC Championship. But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves.
For now, it’s Eagles-Saints, Saturday night. Both teams are healthy — except for Earl Wolff, who seems doubtful. With him out, the Eagles need to hope for some nasty weather to slow down Drew Brees and the Saints’s unbelievable passing game. A shootout would be fun but the Saints have the NFL’s second best passing defense. An unexpectedly low-scoring game, grinding it out between the tackles, is Philadelphia’s best hope.
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