There are two games left in the 2013 regular season. The Eagles control their fate. If they win both, they will win the NFC East and host a playoff game in a couple of weeks. Does that sound great or what?
The players and coaches can't think like that. They are locked in on the Chicago Bears, who are also 8-6 and lead their division. This is going to be the biggest game of the year for both teams, but oddly enough, it still might not decide anything. Both teams have division showdowns in the season finale that could decide who wins the respective divisions.
The Bears will be a major challenge for the Eagles. They are second in the NFL in points per game. Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the headliners. Those guys have combined for 170 catches and 17 touchdowns. They are incredibly difficult to defend. Both receivers are huge and can make tough, contested catches. Even when they are covered, they're open. You can't relax until the ball is on the ground or the whistle blows.
The good news is that the NFL is a league of matchups. The Eagles have big cornerbacks in
This isn’t meant to indicate that the Eagles can shut down Jeffery and Marshall. Those guys are too big and too talented. They will make plays. The Eagles struggled last week giving up yards after the catch. It wouldn't surprise me if missed tackles in that game cost the Eagles at least 100 yards, maybe more. Jeffery and Marshall are 24th and 66th in the NFL in yards after the catch. Those aren't standout figures for such productive receivers. The Eagles can give up catches. What they can't do is miss tackles and let those guys get loose for big plays.
Jeffery and Marshall are special with their ability to go up and catch the ball in tight traffic. Williams and Fletcher have good ball skills. They've combined for 25 pass break-ups. They may actually be able to make a play or two on contested throws. Those contested catches can come in some crucial situations. Jeffery has a long touchdown grab in each of the last two weeks where the defensive backs just missed getting a hand on the ball. Both touchdowns came at key parts of the game and helped push the Bears to wins. A bigger corner with better ball skills might have made a difference in those situations.
Jay Cutler will get his second straight start at quarterback after missing four games due to a high-ankle sprain. Cutler was rusty last week and made some errant throws. He was picked off twice. Cutler forced the ball to Marshall at times, which is something he's done in the past. If he can get back to the form he had earlier in the year, the Bears will be incredibly hard to deal with. Cutler has great natural talent. You just always wonder about taking out a hot quarterback (Josh McCown) and inserting a guy who is going to be rusty. Is that the right move? How long until the rust is gone?
I think the real key to controlling the Bears offense is playing the run well. Chicago has scored 21 or fewer points four times this year. They ran for fewer than 100 yards in three of those games. Limit their rushing attack and you have a better chance to stop them. That still doesn't mean you'll stop them, but it makes life easier.
Matt Forte is a terrific player, but I don't think he gets the attention he should. Forte might be the most complete running back in the league. He is a gifted runner. He is an outstanding receiver. He is the best pass-blocking back in the league. He can run inside or outside. Forte has speed and power. He truly is the complete package.
The Bears love to get Forte outside to the left.
I think the Eagles will try to funnel Forte to the middle. He can run inside, but isn't as effective. He wants to get outside. Forte just had his best three-game stretch of the season. Stopping him won't be easy, but the Eagles generally play the run well. They need to keep him under control.
Red zone defense was a big part of why the Eagles held opponents to 21 or fewer points for nine straight games. The Vikings converted on five of six red zone chances last week. This is going to again be a critical area. Jeffery and Marshall come up big in the red zone, literally and figuratively. They are tough to stop since Cutler can just put the ball up in the air and let them go get it. The defensive backs must find the ball in the air and go attack it.
The Eagles are happy that
Getting pressure on Cutler is going to be important. He has the mobility to make plays with his legs, but also will make some questionable throws. There are times when he handles pressure well and other times when he really struggles. The Bears start rookies at right guard and right tackle. Something tells me that the Eagles will attack that side.
The part of Sunday's game that I'm most looking forward to is seeing
The Bears have been without Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs for the past seven games, but even with him they weren't good against the run. They've been awful with him sidelined. They lost some key defenders early in the year and just haven't been able to replace them. Briggs has been cleared by the doctors, but the team isn't sure if he'll start or not. He suffered a nasty shoulder injury. That's tough for a linebacker since those guys use their shoulders to take on blockers and make tackles on just about every play.
Chicago was top five in points and yards allowed last year. They are 28th and 27th, respectively, in those categories this year. They don't stop the run. They don't rush the passer well. They lived off turnovers in the past, but the Bears aren't getting them this year. They had a stretch early in the season when they came up with 17 takeaways in six games, but only have eight since then. The 1985 Bears and the Monsters of the Midway cannot be pleased with what they are seeing.
This is the kind of game where I'm glad Chip Kelly is the coach. I don't think he'll over-think this. Chicago struggles to stop the run. So let's go run the ball on them until they do prove they can stop it. Put on the tape and you will see some eight-man fronts by the Bears and they still can't stop the run. Don't focus on the pre-snap numbers. Make them stop you.
The Eagles will throw the ball, of course. The Bears secondary is vulnerable as well. Charles Tillman, their best corner, is out for the year. I'm sure the Eagles love the thought of
If the Eagles do run the ball a lot, it could mean extra touches for
Special teams could be key for the third game in a row. The Lions burned the Eagles with return touchdowns. The Eagles then tried to play it safe last week, but that strategy didn't work exactly as planned. Now the Eagles face Devin Hester. He has one punt return touchdown this year and averages 29 yards per kickoff return. The Eagles are going to be without
I'm excited to see how the Eagles handle the moment. They'll be on national television. They're playing a division leader. There could be a playoff atmosphere to the game. That might bring out the best in the Eagles. Or it could bring out some nerves. Kelly will preach the message that this is just another game and hope his team puts blinders on to avoid all the trappings (media hype and that type of stuff). I don't really know what to expect, but I've got a feeling McCoy is going to be a tired man when the game is over.