In the biggest of many big pictures to be played out on Sunday, maybe the most important is the Eagles' ability to regain some of its foothold in the NFC East. It is critical territory, ground the Eagles used to own, and a holy land of sorts that the team has not clutched since the December blitz in 2006.
Win in the NFC East. It is the very most important part of the season, and it is something that has eluded the Eagles to date. December is NFC East month, with games against the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys sandwiching a Monday night clash against Cleveland.
"It's huge for us to win, and to win in the division," said wide receiver Hank Baskett. "We have must-win games in front of us."
Dominating in the NFC East was the primary fuel that fired the Eagles' run of success from 2001-2004. The Eagles captured division titles in four consecutive seasons and compiled a gaudy 21-3 record against NFC East opponents.They ran roughshod over the competition in Dallas, Washington and New York.
Division games set the tone for seasons in this decade. The Pickle Juice game in Dallas that opened the 2000 season served notice that the Eagles, in their second year under Reid, were an up-and-coming team. The thrilling 24-21 victory on December 30, 2001 at Veterans Stadium against the Giants clinched the team's first NFC East title since 1988. Stirring December wins in 2002 over Washington (34-21) and Dallas (27-3) helped the Eagles stay afloat as the conference's No.1 seed with quarterback Donovan McNabb on the sidelines with a broken ankle.
The list goes on and on. In 2003 the Eagles lost 23-21 in Dallas, their only divisional blemish of the season, and in the course of nine straight wins that year beat the Giants twice and Washington once, and then punctuated the campaign by blowing out the Redskins, 31-7 to complete a 12-4 season.
That magical season of 2004 was a joyride through the NFC East, with a sparkling 6-0 record that featured the opening-game romp over the Giants and the incredible 49-21 win in Dallas on Monday night.
Philadelphia's NFC East run came to a halt in 2005 and not so coincidentally the Eagles were 0-6 against their in-divisional rivals. Remember what keyed the 2006 stretch run? Wins in Washington, then New York and then a Merry Christmas muscle job in Dallas and, one week later, the Eagles were back atop the division.
In last season's 8-8 speed bump, the Eagles beat Washington in Washington and defeated Dallas in Dallas. Overall, though, they were 2-4 and finished as the only team in the NFC East out of the playoffs. This season, well, you know. The Eagles are searching for their first win in the division.
December is so telling for this team in so many ways. The level of competition in the NFC East has improved greatly since those blowout-every-week games from 2001-2004. They were the glory days, indeed. The Eagles dominated. No question. They were the Beasts of the East.
Now, as the cycle has turned, the Eagles are looking up at the rest of their rivals. And they know that to make a run -- now, this season, and in the years to come -- they must re-establish themselves within the NFC East. In losses this year to the Giants and Redskins and Cowboys, the Eagles have given up far too many points and have lost too many opportunities to capitalize on their offensive opportunities. None of the losses have been blowouts, but the Eagles have fallen short in just enough areas to lose the games.
In Dallas the defense gave up too many big plays in the passing game, the special teams allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and the offense fumbled away a drive in Dallas territory in the fourth quarter. Against Washington, the Eagles blew a 14-0 lead as the defense couldn't control the Redskins running game and the offense failed to sustain any momentum from early in the first quarter.
The first time the Eagles met New York, the Giants ran for 219 yards and stuffed the Eagles on third- and fourth-down runs late in the fourth quarter to quell a drive that would have kept the game alive and given the offense a chance to pull a win from the jaws of defeat.
Sunday at New York is next.
And a chance to measure up against the rest of the division provides the Eagles the opportunity to find out how good they really are. This is NFC East month. These the games the Eagles prepare to win starting way back in the spring. These are the games the early-decade Eagles won all the time.
These are the ones the Eagles need to win right now to salvage a season.
* A LITTLE BIT OF THIS AND A LITTLE BIT OF THAT *
- Sounds like, from what defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said on Thursday, that the Eagles really want to rotate their linemen against New York. Good test to see where rookie Trevor Laws and free-agent signee Chris Clemons are in their development here.* *
- The weather for Giants Stadium on Sunday is expected to be in the low 30s with some win and maybe some snow showers. This is NFC East weather, peeps.
- I understand that Plaxico Burress isn't playing, but if anybody underestimates the Giants receivers, they are crazy. Amani Toomer has had some huge games against the Eagles, and the rest of the group is quick, sure-handed and tough. Don't sleep on the receivers just because Burress is out.