After a bye week, perfect for the many injured Eagles to heal up, Philadelphia faces the surging Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in a battle between two of the four remaining one-loss teams. This game may well decide who gets a bye during the wild card round of playoffs.
Every Eagle practiced this week except WR 4/special teamer Brad Smith, though OG Evan Mathis isn’t eligible to play until week 10, and Jason Kelce is almost certainly going to miss this one too. The players on the bubble are crucial: inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks (calf injury) and running back/returner Darren Sproles, who suffered an MCL sprain in week 6. Chris Polk looks very likely to play despite a new hamstring injury that is much less serious than the one that kept him out of the first two games and much of the preseason. If Sproles is out, they will definitely need him.
The return of rookie WR Josh Huff and second year offensive tackle Lane Johnson has been a big boost for the Eagles, contributing a large part to their 27-0 demolition of the previously hot New York Giants. The improvement in the offensive line was obvious, as LeSean McCoy shrugged off a slow start to this season by rushing for 149 yards and vaulting to fourth in the NFL (from 15th) in a single game.
Huff’s contribution was less clear, because it came mostly in the form of superb blocking for Shady and for other receivers, but he expressed it quite succinctly: “If you line up across from me, I’m gonna kick your ass.” Check out this GIF by slap_bet on the /r/Eagles subreddit (Huff is #11 in the upper right corner, and backup center #63 David Molk is pretty mobile too):
This game is also a battle between the two hottest new coaches of the last two years, Bruce Arians and Chip Kelly. Both are 15-7 since the beginning of 2013, and their teams are currently tied for the NFL’s best record. They are a perfect contrast too, iconic symbols of opposite approaches. Arians worked his way up the NFL chain of command as an assistant coach for 20 years, and Kelly did the same in the innovative world of college football.
Not surprisingly then, Arians is an old school, conservative, punt on 4th and 1 at midfield kind of guy. Kelly is the new-fangled deception-based spread coach (though he remains fundamentally sound with a run-first, take what they give you philosophy).
There’s bad blood between them too. Last year, Arians mocked Kelly’s approach with thinly veiled threats of injury.
“It’s a great college offense when you put a great athlete back there. But when you’re facing great athletes, with the speed that’s in the NFL who are chasing these guys, unless you’re superhuman, you’re going to get hurt sooner or later — not hurt, but beat up and bruised up.”
Kelly’s response was blunt. First, he corrected Arians’ terminology by noting that the “read-option” Arians talked about is a play, not an offense. (Thus, he subtly implied that Arians didn’t understand what he was talking about.) Then he added:
“I don’t care what other people think. It doesn’t bother me. To spend time to think about what someone else thinks is counter to everything I’ve ever believed in my life. If I believe what other people think, that means I value their opinion more than I value my own. That’s not the case.”
As it turned out, the “gimmicky” college offense dropped 24 points on the Cardinals before they scored a second time, and Philadelphia hung on for a tense 24-21 win that left Arians sputtering and bitching about the referees. It’s safe to say both want this victory for personal as well as professional reasons.
I’ll be in Arizona, covering the game from the press box. This is probably the best game in the NFL this weekend. Don’t miss it.
Featured photo: Birds Fighting by anonymous, courtesy of Nederlands Rijkmuseum via Wikimedia Commons.)