Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles pounded out two big victories in five days. This week, they have some extra days to prepare for Seattle at home, and they are going to need it.
This game is big in every way — an even match between two great and similar teams, nationally televised at 1:30 pm PST Sunday on Fox, and crucial for both teams’ playoff hopes. If the Eagles win, they will have essentially locked up the NFC East and be in great position for a first round playoff bye, while the Seahawks will have a tough path even to get a wild card slot. But an Eagles loss will make next week’s game against Dallas crucial, and put the Birds at risk of going home in December.
The Seahawks had some of the typical adjustment problems of Super Bowl champions. Every team is hyped up to play against them, and they lost some good players — including their three best receivers — since everyone naturally wanted to be paid and the salary cap won’t allow that. The Hawks have lost four games already — to San Diego, Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City.
They’re also improving every week, and like Philadelphia, only just now getting back their full offensive line after injuries. (Center Max Unger, a former Duck, may still miss Sunday’s game though.) On defense, Seattle won by holding San Francisco and Arizona — their toughest division rivals — to 3 points each the last two weeks.
These teams are similar in a lot of ways, with dominant running attacks, great defenses and innovative West Coast college coaches who run a lot of read option plays. Philadelphia’s D (which held high-scoring Dallas to 10 points at home) is massively underrated, though Connor Barwin was just named the NFL’s defensive player of the month for November.
Seattle’s defense isn’t over-rated — it’s still the NFL’s best — but it’s at least fully rated. Star right defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is out for the season, which should help the Eagles’ run game.
Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly have faced each other as head coaches only once, on Halloween night in 2009. Number 10 Oregon destroyed #4 USC, 47-20, which was the Trojans’ worst loss in 12 years. But the coaches matched wits the two previous years as well, when Kelly was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator.
In 2007, Oregon (with QB Dennis Dixon at his peak) beat Mark Sanchez and the Trojans 24-17. The victory was sealed by two Matthew Harper interceptions of Sanchez, who was starting just his third game as QB.
The next year, though, Sanchez was the star, passing for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns, as #9 USC crushed #23 Oregon 44-10. The Trojans stuffed Oregon’s powerful run game, holding it to just 60 yards. This was only the second start for Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli, after injuries to starters Nate Costa and Justin Roper, and he couldn’t hold on to an early 10-3 lead.
Sunday’s game should be epic — two great teams that know each other well and understand how to stop (as well as run) the read-option play. Execution in the running game will be crucial. Seattle does not give up long passes, but Mark Sanchez might be well suited to attacking them with his quick decision times and short, accurate passes to open up yards after catch. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles’ porous secondary won’t fix Seattle’s anemic pass attack, so if the Eagles can contain Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson’s scrambles (as Kansas City did), Seattle will have trouble scoring.
In the end, it may boil down to the third phase of the game: special teams. After last season, Philadelphia poached one of the Seahawks’ best ST players — Chris Maragos — as well as specialists Bryan Braman, Nolan Carroll and league-leading punt returner Darren Sproles. The team has dominated on special teams ever since. In what could be a low scoring game, one blocked punt or a big Sproles return might make the difference.
Featured photo: from video (NFL Rewind)
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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