A week of waiting is behind us, with the game squarely in focus. And the first topic of conversation is the defense and the plan to take red-hot quarterback Kirk Cousins off his game.
Cousins has been absolutely torrid the last six games, dating back to a Week 10 outing against New Orleans in which he completed 20-of-25 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-14 victory. Even in the following week's blowout loss at Carolina, Cousins was 22-of-30 with a touchdown and an interception. Washington has won three of its last four games, and Cousins has been outstanding: 20-of-29 for 302 yards and a touchdown to beat the Giants, 22-of-31 completions for 219 yards and a touchdown in a loss against Dallas and then 24-of-31 passing for 300 yards and one touchdown and an interception in a 24-21 win over Chicago before a masterful performance last Sunday in the 35-25 win against Buffalo. Cousins completed 22-of-28 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns in that game and he comes into Saturday night's showdown as the NFL's leader in completion percentage (70 percent), along with 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
"He makes good decisions and he's playing with a lot of confidence," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "They've got a balanced offense and Kirk knows what's doing back there. He's seeing things and not forcing it. We have to put him in some situations where he takes some chances and then we have to take advantage of those chances to get our hands on the football."
Cousins has a lot around him, with tight end Jordan Reed one of the premier pass catchers in the league at his position. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon take the top off the defense and work the middle of the field, respectively. Rookie Jamison Crowder caught seven passes, six in the second half, and five that went for first downs in the October 4 game. Reed is a matchup nightmare who had five catches and 37 yards in the first meeting. Garçon caught the pass that produced the winning points and had seven receptions for 55 yards.
The Eagles matched up pretty well against Washington in that game until Cousins put together the dagger drive -- 90 yards in 15 plays -- late in the fourth quarter. Now the Redskins have Jackson healthy, he missed the Week 4 meeting, and they are a win away from claiming the NFC East.
"This offense is running at a pretty high rate. Again, they've got a lot of weapons," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "They have Reed, Garçon, DeSean, a solid running game and they've got Kirk Cousins delivering the ball all over the place. Really what a great quarterback does is not focus in on one, but takes what you give him. When DeSean is open and has it, Kirk has all the arm to get it there. He's a highly accurate thrower, good decision-maker. They're hitting on all cylinders right now. It's going to be a hell of a challenge for us to step up and beat them."
The Eagles must manufacture a pass rush without sacrificing coverage on the back end. Cousins gets the ball out quickly, of course. Washington hurt the Eagles early on October 4 with the running game, so the Eagles can't just pin their ears back and go up the field. A 42-yard run by Chris Thompson on a third-and-19 play on Washington's first drive in October led to a Washington field goal, a 3-0 lead and an uphill battle for the Eagles.
"We have to get off the field," linebacker Brandon Graham said. "We have to do our jobs and get off the field. We know their personnel. We know they're playing good football. We have to set the tone early."
That's the defense. As for an offense that has scored 30 points in one game this season (in a win over New Orleans) and that hasn't scored more than 23 points (to beat Buffalo) since defeating Dallas 33-27 in overtime seven games ago, it's now or never. Nobody really sees a 17-14 kind of game here. The Eagles need to score some points. They've got to put some consistency together. Quarterback Sam Bradford has been a bright spot for an offense that hasn't run the ball well for most of the season and that hasn't gotten production from wide receivers not named Jordan Matthews all season.
Washington's defense gives up an average of 370 yards per game, has registered just 29 quarterback sacks (although five in the October game against the Eagles) and allows 4.9 yards per running play. Washington is going to be aggressive and at times, as the Eagles took advantage of the first time around, leaves the middle of the field open in an effort to send a blitz at the quarterback.
"I think if we execute what we've got drawn up, we're going to be fine," Matthews said. "We've just made too many mistakes. Penalties, dropped passes, just not taking advantage when we've had plays to be made. We need to put it together for 60 minutes. That's what we're trying to do."
Meet some of the key players on Washington's roster that the Eagles will look to contain on Saturday night. View the full gallery here...
- Jackson, in his second game at Lincoln Financial Field since he was released by the Eagles is playing it low-key for this game, perhaps mindful of the lesson learned from LeSean McCoy a couple of weeks ago. "It's just another game," Jackson told reporters this week. "I'm excited about it, highly anticipate it, but I'm not going to make it more than what it is. We've got a game to do, to go win. That's really all that matters. Regardless of what team it is or the name on the jersey, we don't really care about that. We've just got a game to go win and it's a must-win for us." Just another game? Yeah, right.
- Inside linebacker Perry Riley, Jr. is out for Washington and five other players are listed as questionable, including right tackle Morgan Moses, center Josh LeRibeus and safety Dashon Goldson. It would be surprising if those players missed this one.
- Neither nose tackle Bennie Logan nor cornerback Byron Maxwell practiced this week and both are listed as questionable for the game. They are true game-time decisions, but the Eagles are prepared if they can't play. Beau Allen would replace Logan and E.J. Biggers would replace Maxwell in a thinned-out secondary playing against a really deep group of Washington receivers.
- Weather for the game? Temperatures in the low 50s, a chance of some rain, but all in all the field will play well and there won't be any wind or anything extreme. A good night for special teams and throwing the football. Both teams are going to toss it around Lincoln Financial Field. This one could be a high-scoring game that the Eagles need to keep their playoff hopes alive.