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Game-By-Game Preview: Fourth Quarter

Posted Apr 18, 2013

It was a forgettable game in a forgettable season.

The Eagles led the Detroit Lions 23-13 with 5:18 remaining in the game after a 70-yard touchdown pass from Michael Vick to Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles were poised to go to 4-2 and remain in position to contend.

However, the defense fell apart and the Eagles would eventually lose 26-23 in overtime. It was the second of eight straight losses for the Eagles.

As big of a win it was for the Lions, they didn't fare much better down the stretch. The Lions would only win two more games the rest of the season. The Lions did have the toughest schedule in the league last season. When these two teams square off to begin the final quarter of the season, it will be the first of three straight NFC North matchups for the Eagles.

The Lions didn't have a coaching change this offseason, but they've overhauled the locker room losing a considerable amount of players including both starting offensive tackles - Gosder Cherilus and Jeff Backus - and both starting defensive ends - Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Detroit still has one of the most explosive quarterback-wide receiver combinations in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford has one of the biggest arms in the league and has proven to be durable after some questions earlier in his career. The former No. 1 overall pick nearly threw for 5,000 yards for a second straight season in 2012, but his touchdown total was cut by more than half from 41 in 2011 to 20 last season.

Johnson, a future Hall of Fame receiver, has remarkably improved his receiving yardage totals in each of the past three seasons. Last year, Johnson set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards. However, Megatron's touchdown total dropped from 16 in 2011 to just five last season.

The Lions were third in the league in yards per game, but they ranked 23rd in rushing. To resolve that, they signed Reggie Bush, who transitioned from a satellite player in New Orleans to an every-down back in Miami. However, the Lions must figure out a way to improve the offensive line. Last year's first-round pick Riley Reiff is slated to play one of the tackle spots, but there is still a huge need. Of course, the have the No. 5 overall pick, right after the Eagles' selection.

On defense, the Lions have two outstanding interior linemen in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, who dominated in the game against the Eagles last season. They also signed Jason Jones, who may start at end but would arguably be a better fit working on the inside. Detroit also signed free agent safety Glover Quin, formerly of the Texans, to pair with talented but oft-injured Louis Delmas.

The Lions appeared to finally dig their way out of the doldrums making the playoffs two seasons ago. After doing a lot of housecleaning this offseason, the Lions should have a more balanced offense with some top-flight weapons and a tough, physical defense. Will it be enough to move up in a very deep NFC North division?

This showdown features two of the marquee running backs in the game in the Eagles' LeSean McCoy and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

Two years ago, McCoy was a first-team All-Pro selection after leading the league and setting a franchise record with 20 total touchdowns including 17 on the ground. Peterson earned league MVP honors last season after rushing for 2,097 yards, which was just 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season record. On the shoulders of Peterson, who came off a season-ending ACL injury in 2011, the Vikings finished 10-6 and edged their division-rivals, the Chicago Bears, for the final wild card berth.

This matchup could very well determine both teams' playoff fates in 2013 as it is the second of three straight NFC North matchups.

As good as Peterson was in 2012, if the Vikings are going to contend once again they'll need former first-round pick Christian Ponder to take the next step. Ponder completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,935 yards with 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The Vikings ranked second in the league in rushing offense, but next-to-last in passing. Ponder completed more than 20 passes in a game just once after the bye week last season and did not play in the playoffs due to an injury.

The Vikings sent their most dynamic, but disgruntled receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle for a bounty of draft picks. In turn, the Vikings ponied up to steal free agent wideout Greg Jennings away from the Green Bay Packers. Ponder also has one of the young and promising tight ends in Kyle Rudolph.

Last year, the Vikings were savvy in building a strong future through the draft selecting Matt Kalil with the No. 4 pick. Kalil started all 16 games at left tackle. They traded back into the first round and nabbed free safety Harrison Smith, who also started all 16 games. The Vikings also added cornerback Josh Robinson, wide receiver Jarius Wright and kicker Blair Walsh.

The defense still has a good pass rush anchored by Jared Allen at defensive end and Kevin Williams at tackle. They could stand to add more competition at middle linebacker to work with strongside linebacker Chad Greenway and weakside linebacker Erin Henderson. With two first-round picks courtesy of the Harvin trade, the Vikings have been connected to former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.

In the secondary, the Vikings will need to account for the loss of cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was released in a salary cap move and decided to sign with Seattle instead of take a smaller deal with Minnesota.

In 2011, the Vikings finished 3-13 traded back to get the No. 4 pick and went to the playoffs the following season. The Eagles, who currently own the No. 4 pick, hope to have the same reversal of fortune in 2013.

The Eagles’ penultimate game of the season, and the final home game, will bring to town a team used to playing in the December elements. The Bears will also be the third of three-straight NFC North opponents for the Eagles as the playoff push rages on.  

Like the Eagles, the Bears imported a new head coach to replace long-tenured one. Gone is Lovie Smith after nine seasons. In is Marc Trestman, who has background as an offensive guru and who spent the last five seasons as the head coach for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League, winning two Grey Cups along the way. Smith isn’t the only departed long-time Bears stalwart either. Also gone from Chicago is Brian Urlacher, the 34-year-old eight-time Pro Bowler.

But this Bears team isn’t completely different from the ones you’ve come to know over the past few years. The offense still revolves around strong-armed quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw for 3,033 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. It will also be the second year of the Cutler reunion with wide receiver Brandon Marshall. At 6-4, 229, Marshall will test the new-look Eagles secondary as he’s coming off a career year off 1,508 receiving yards (third-best in the league) and 11 touchdowns. For an Eagles defense that has struggled in the red zone in recent years, Marshall will no doubt be a focus, as will Cutler’s newest weapon, tight end Martellus Bennett who had five touchdowns for the New York Giants last season in a career year of his own.

Of course, the Bears offense is just as likely to revolve around running back Matt Forte, who is a weapon in the passing game in his own right though his reception totals have been on a steady decline. He’s joined in the backfield by powerful running back Michael Bush. Blocking for Forte and Bush and, perhaps more importantly, protecting Cutler, is a new-look left side of the offensive line. After ranking among the top 10 in sacks allowed each of the last three seasons, the Bears dipped into free agency this offseason to pluck Jermon Bushrod, Drew Brees’ former blindside protector in New Orlenas, and former New York Jets guard Matt Slauson.

On defense, there remains a trio of elite players even in Urlacher’s absence. Julius Peppers at defensive end, Lance Briggs at linebacker and Charles Tillman at cornerback form the strength of the vaunted Bears defense at the three levels. But what exactly will the Bears defense look like without Smith at the helm? One of the hallmarks of the Bears defense under smith was the ability to create turnovers, especially forced fumbles, an area in which the Bears ranked among the top three in three out of the last four seasons. So the identity of the new defense remains to be seen, but defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has capable hands to shepherd the unit after a highly touted run in the same position with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
 

The Eagles close out the 2013 season with a trip to Texas to take on the hated Cowboys. These two teams last met in Week 17 during the 2008 season. That year, the Eagles’ postseason hopes relied on key wins by the Bears and Raiders. When both teams won, the only thing standing between the Eagles and a trip to the playoffs was those pesky Cowboys. The Eagles took care of business that day, dismantling Dallas by a score of 44-6 at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles went on to reach the NFC Championship, taking down the Giants in the process.

Over the past several seasons, the NFC East has been decided on the last day of the season, and this year could be no exception. After being swept by the Cowboys last season, the Eagles will be burning to take down the Cowboys in Big D this time around.

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