There isn't a lot separating the Eagles and the four teams advancing. Defense rules the day in the playoffs, an edict that stands in this pass-happy, offensively charged NFL. If you want to break it down to four essentials to win in the playoffs, how about these: Coaching, quarterbacking, running the football and playing defense. If you have all four of those elements going, you are going to be difficult to beat.
Here are some of the things I saw during a weekend that paled in comparison to Wild Card Weekend in terms of quality of play, on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement and pure entertainment. There is nothing like that first weekend of the playoffs, one I would love the Eagles to have a bye for in 2014 ...
- Shayne Graham missed a couple of field goals after his perfect night against the Eagles, and those misses ended up costing the Saints dearly in their loss to Seattle. Graham hooked kicks of 45 and 48 yards and New Orleans could have really used those points. It isn't easy finding kickers.
Alex Heneryhas some work to do in the offseason and he has to get his groove back after a struggle or two in 2013, and he has talent and the right mentality to be one of the best the Eagles have ever had.
- A great pass rush is so essential. The Eagles weren't consistent enough in that phase of the defense, so it will be interesting to see how they work to improve there. San Francisco overwhelmed Carolina's offensive line, Denver went after Philip Rivers, New England was all over Andrew Luck and Seattle has a completely awesome defense.
- Seattle ran for 174 yards in its win, New England gained 234 yards on the ground, San Francisco churned out 126 yards and Denver picked up 133 yards running the ball. All four teams won. All four teams established the running game and picked up key first downs on the ground. That the Eagles ran for just 80 against New Orleans after leading the NFL in rushing offense during the regular season was maybe the most shocking part of the playoff defeat.
- I'm not sure what to make of Russell Wilson, but I supposed we'll find out on Sunday when Seattle plays San Francisco. He was 9 of 18 for 103 yards against New Orleans. It can certainly be argued that Seattle is challenged from an offensive weapons standpoint, but is Wilson the next wave of quarterbacks in this league? Frankly,
Nick Foleshas the right qualities to win big in this league. How do the Eagles make the offense even more robust in 2014? Where does the front office look to upgrade? How will the scheme be tweaked? Can't wait ...
- The job Denver's defense did against San Diego is not to be minimized. The Broncos have been ravaged by injuries all season and yet they played with great energy and were very physical against San Diego and Rivers. Denver beats New England, it says here.
- Chargers rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen is as impressive a first-year receiver as I've seen in the league in a long, long time. He had eight catches for 163 yards and 2 touchdowns (both on Sunday) in San Diego's two playoff games after catching 71 passes for 1,046 yards and 8 TDs during the regular season. The draft is said to be fertile with receivers in May.
- Didn't quite understand all of the neutral-zone infractions against San Diego (5 in all). It made me recall times when defensive linemen would jump against the Eagles in the regular season and the Eagles offensive linemen would move in response, yet the Eagles were penalized. What was the difference?
- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is playing outstanding football for the Broncos after being extremely inconsistent during his time here. My theory: When the Eagles were winning, at 3-1 through September of 2012, DRC played fine football. Once the defense fell apart, he did as well. In Denver, he has a terrific supporting cast, a quarterback in Peyton Manning who gets the best of out of every player, and the Broncos are winning. Rodgers-Cromartie is happy and motivated. He's always been talented, but in a losing environment, he struggles.
- Carolina was zero for 3 in the red zone against San Francisco. There's your ballgame ...
- As much as Seattle's defense dominates, the 49ers are so fast and physical. They defended Cam Newton very well and while Newton gained 54 yards rushing, he was also sacked five times. I still say Seattle wins on Sunday and plays Denver in the Super Bowl.
- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was held in check by the Eagles and then held to one catch in Seattle. It's amazing to me how defenses can scheme to take out one or two players. The key is to have multiple weapons, and Seattle's defense did not allow the Saints to establish the running game or allow quarterback Drew Brees to get much going at all. Brees had 34 passing yards in the first half.
- Finally, Foles will play in the Pro Bowl and while the game is not exactly a tension-filled 60 minutes, Foles will benefit greatly being around the game for the week of practice and getting to know the other Pro Bowl players and growing in confidence. He deserves it. The young man had a tremendous season.