Yes, it was great for the players to get their week off to reenergize for the five-game stretch run leading up to the playoff. But come on, a week without watching the Eagles, especially in the midst of a three-game winning streak, is an interminable one. So thankfully, the Eagles are back in action on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field as they welcome in one of the hottest teams in the football, the 7-4 Arizona Cardinals, who have won four consecutive games. Led by a ferocious defense, an impressive pair of receivers, a reliable quarterback and an impressive head coach, the Cardinals are very much in the thick of the NFC playoff race.
The Eagles, meanwhile, move forward with a near perfect bill of health. Fifty-two of the 53 players on the active roster are at full capacity, excepting only safety Earl Wolff. Jason Peters, who played through a quad injury in the Eagles' last game, and Mychal Kendricks and Bradley Fletcher all return to full health. Behind center, Nick Foles, the league's highest-rated passer, is now the official starting quarterback on the heels of his impressive and historic three-game stretch. The high-powered Eagles offense faces a stern test in the Cardinals' top-10 defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles. Game-changing players like DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy will face off against the likes of Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Daryl Washington. Both defensive coordinators in this game, in fact, will be out for some modicum of revenge against former employers. Bowles replaced Juan Castillo as the Eagles defensive coordinator last season, while Davis led the Cardinals defense from 2009-2010. All in all, it should make for a welcome return to Eagles football.
Last Time They Met:
September 23, 2012 – Eagles 6, Cardinals 27
In what served as 2012's first sign of trouble, the 2-0 Eagles traveled out west flying high, only to be brought down to life by the Cardinals and former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals jumped out to a 17-0 lead early, thanks to touchdown passes by Kolb to Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald. Late in the second quarter, though, the Eagles drove all the way down the field with an opportunity to make the game interesting, only for Michael Vick to take a blindside sack inside the 5-yard-line, causing a fumble that would be scooped up by James Sanders for a 93-yard touchdown return. That, as they say, was that.
When The Eagles Have The Ball:
Fresh off the bye week, the Eagles offense will look to keep its momentum rolling in a crucial matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Nick Foles, who following his incredible November now holds the NFL record for highest quarterback rating ever in a month at 152.8, will start his fourth straight game as the Eagles look for their fourth straight win and second in a row at home. Foles will have to be at his best in this game, since the Cardinals boast the best defense he has faced all season and a ferocious pass rush that battered Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in a 40-11 annihilation on Sunday. That said, this Eagles offense is the best, most explosive unit the Cardinals have faced since a 31-7 loss in Week 3 to the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles rank seventh in the league in offensive points per game (24.3), fourth in yards per game (412.4), first in yards per play (6.3) and first in plays of 20-plus yards (67).
The Eagles passing game has really taken off since Foles returned from his concussion and now ranks ninth in the NFL at 261.7 yards per game. His 128.0 overall quarterback rating still ranks first in the league, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio remains a sterling, perfect 16-to-0. No doubt Chip Kelly will try to get NFL-leading rusher LeSean McCoy (1,009 yards) and the Eagles' second-ranked ground game (150.6 yards per game) going, but it will be a tough task against the Cardinals' second-ranked rush defense, which is allowing a mere 81.3 yards per game. The Eagles' rushing attack has been less potent in recent weeks, and if the Cardinals defense stays true to form, Foles and his collection of receivers, led by DeSean Jackson (985 yards and seven touchdowns on 58 receptions), will have to carry the load and exploit the 17th-ranked pass defense in the league (235.8 yards allowed per game). Jackson is likely to draw Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals' All-Pro cornerback, in coverage, so Riley Cooper's matchup against Jerraud Powers on the other side becomes even more important. Tight ends Brent Celek, who has become a weapon in the screen game, and Zach Ertz could also be integral pieces in the passing attack, though it is possible Kelly will opt for more three-, perhaps even four-wide receiver sets to spread out the defense. Pace and tempo will also be major factors since the Cardinals value rotating a variety of players in on defense. If the Eagles run their patented hurry-up offense, Arizona will not be able to make its preferred, frequent substitutions.
Lost in the mess that was Arizona's 2012 season, during which a quarterback carousel and woefully inept offense doomed the team to losses in 11 of its final 12 games, was that defense actually performed very well and ranked among the league's top units. In fact, the Cardinals defense ranked sixth in the NFL based on Football Outsiders' Defense Value Over Adjusted (DVOA) system, which measures defenses based on situational performance and quality of opponent. This season, with former Eagles secondary coach and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles at the controls, the defense ranks first in DVOA. The Cardinals also rank ninth in offensive points allowed per game (19.5), eighth in yards allowed per game (317.1), fourth in takeaways (23) and 15th in sacks (29.0). The unit is physical, stingy, opportunistic and playing at a high level, with a coordinator who undoubtedly has revenge on his mind as he returns to Philadelphia.
The Cardinals defense is a mixture of foundational draft picks – Peterson, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington, Tyrann Mathieu – and veteran castoffs –John Abraham, Karlos Dansby (on his second stint with the team), Yeremiah Bell – who have found new life in the desert. Bowles runs a variety of defenses, mixing and matching 3-4 and 4-3 looks with exotic blitz packages and brings extra pressure on nearly 50 percent of snaps, more than any other team in the league.
The Eagles offensive line is going to have its hands full against that Cardinals defensive front seven, and the extra week of rest could not have come at a better time for Jason Peters, who has been playing through an assortment of injuries. Campbell (40 tackles, 10 for loss, 5.5 sacks) is one of the league's premier defensive ends and has victimized the Eagles in the past, and Dockett (29 tackles, nine for loss, 4.5 sacks) is having a renaissance season at age 32. Dan Williams clogs the middle, while Dansby, who is playing like an All-Pro, leads the team in total tackles (88, nine for loss) and passes defended (14) and has chipped in with 3.0 sacks, two interceptions (one returned for touchdown) and a forced fumble. Abraham leads the team in sacks with 7.0 and three forced fumbles, all of which have come in the last five games.
In the secondary, Peterson remains the cornerstone and shutdown cornerback. He leads the team in interceptions with three (five others are tied with two). Mathieu, Peterson's close friend and former college teammate at LSU, plays free safety in the base defense and has emerged as an impact player in his rookie season. He ranks second on the team in total tackles (64, five for loss) and, in the nickel package, plays the role of slot corner and as a rover-type defensive back, much like he did at LSU. Mathieu is a chess piece that Bowles deploys all over the formation, allowing him to roam the middle of the field and lurk near the line of scrimmage with the freedom to let his natural instincts take over.
When the Cardinals Have the Ball:
The Cardinals entered last weekend with a record of 6-4, which at the time was tied with San Francisco for second place in an ultra-competitive NFC West. With the Indianapolis Colts coming to town, the Cardinals appeared to be in for a huge test to gauge whether or not they were legitimate playoff contenders.
They passed the test with flying colors.
Arizona pummeled the Colts by a final score of 40-11, and led 27-3 at halftime. It seemed like the Cardinals had everything clicking offensively, as they outgained the Colts 410-239. Carson Palmer has been very inconsistent this season, but he's coming off his second consecutive game without an interception. He threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns and spread the ball around to 10 different receivers. The USC product may not be setting the world on fire with his numbers (16 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), but he's winning games, which is ultimately the most important thing. He isn't the same quarterback that he was 2005 when he threw for 32 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, but he's finding ways to get the ball to his playmakers.
Those playmakers are led by Larry Fitzgerald. The All-Pro wide receiver has been making it look easy for 10 seasons, and though he may be having a down year by his own standards (606 yards), he has still managed to be on the receiving end of eight touchdown passes, including two last week. But Arizona is so much more than just Fitzgerald. Second-year pro Michael Floyd has been outstanding this season, catching 49 passes for 761 yards. Like Fitzgerald, Floyd stands at 6-foot-3 and provides a difficult matchup on the outside. It appears that the Eagles will have cornerback Bradley Fletcher back in the lineup after the cornerback missed time because of a pectoral injury. Roc Carmichael has played well in relief, but the Eagles will need Fletcher and Cary Williams to provide length at the cornerback position to try to disrupt Fitzgerald and Floyd. Slot receiver Andre Roberts will see a lot of Brandon Boykin, as will Fitzgerald. Then, there is the occasional X factor of Patrick Peterson being used on offense.
The Cardinals haven't gotten all that much out of their running backs this season (88.7 yards per game as a team), but they have picked up the pace as of late. Rashard Mendenhall is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry, but he ran hard in the Cardinals win over Indianapolis. His longest run of the season is only 15 yards, but he's a down-hill, physical back who can pick up the difficult yards. Mendenhall will split carries with rookie Andre Ellington, who has continually seen his carries increase, becoming the Cardinals leading rusher on the season with 441 yards. Ellington's breakout game came against Atlanta, when he carried the ball 15 times for 154 yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles defense has gone seven straight games without allowing more than 21 points, but Arizona will be sure to put that to the test. The Cardinals have scored 22 points or more in each of their last five games. The biggest challenge for the Eagles will be their ability to get pressure on Palmer without blitzing. We know that Bill Davis likes to dial up the blitz, and he certainly will on Sunday, but that would most likely leave single coverage on Arizona's playmakers, which could be dangerous. Keep an eye on the plays where the Eagles rush either three or four players. If they can win at the line of scrimmage and force Palmer to throw into tight windows, then the Eagles could be in for a successful afternoon. Fletcher Cox is coming off of a monster game against Washington. With an extra week of rest, he and Cedric Thornton should be ready to cause havoc all afternoon long.
It also appears that the Eagles defense will be almost entirely healthy for the game. On Tuesday, Kelly explained that Earl Wolff was the only player who he didn't anticipate being ready to play on Sunday. The Eagles should receive a big boost as Fletcher and Mychal Kendricks both figure to be in the starting lineup. Najee Goode and Roc Carmichael can now re-assume their duties as role players, having shown their coaches and teammates that they can step up when called upon.
RT Lane Johnson (No. 65) vs. DE Calais Campbell (No. 93)
While Jason Peters will contend with John Abraham on the left side, Eagles rookie right tackle Lane Johnson faces a monumental challenge in drawing the assignment of blocking the dominant Calais Campbell. Johnson has elevated his game in recent weeks and is rapidly improving, but the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell is a freakish athlete for his size who gives tackles fits with his combination of length, quickness and power. He has feasted on the Eagles before, particularly in the 2011 matchup when he got constant pressure on Michael Vick and recorded two passes defended, one of which he actually intercepted.
WR DeSean Jackson (No. 10) vs. CB Patrick Peterson (No. 21)
The battle that everyone will be watching when the Eagles have the ball on offense pits two of the NFL's most explosive, exciting players. Jackson is thriving under Chip Kelly and is having a career season, but Peterson is perhaps the best cornerback he will face. The former is a speed demon who stretches the field vertically and is a big play waiting to happen, while the latter is a rare blend of size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds), speed (4.31) and athleticism and is one of the few defensive backs who can run with Jackson step for step. The two have matched up once before, in 2012, when Peterson held Jackson to just three catches (on 10 targets) for 43 yards in a 27-6 Cardinals victory.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (No. 11) vs. CB Cary Williams (No. 26)
On the flip side of the Jackson-Peterson matchup is future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald against Eagles top cornerback Cary Williams. Fitzgerald, somewhat outshined by second-year receiver Michael Floyd, has not had his usual dynamic season in terms of yardage (50 catches for 606 yards), but he has hauled in eight touchdowns and always seems to save his most transcendent performances for the Eagles. The 2008 NFC Championship (nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns) and 2011 Week 7 game (seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner) come to mind immediately. In five career games against the Eagles, Fitzgerald has 35 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns, his most against any non-NFC West opponent, and the Cardinals are 4-1. Williams has the height, length and physicality to go up against Fitzgerald, and he will be called upon to limit the prolific wide receiver if the Eagles defense hopes to slow down the Cardinals' rapidly improving offense.
QB Carson Palmer (No. 3) vs. DC Bill Davis
After a rough start to the season, Palmer has been on point over the course of the Cardinals' four-game win streak, completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,146 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions, and a passer rating of 110.8. He has attributed his recent success to both himself and the entire offense becoming comfortable with head coach Bruce Arians' offensive scheme and concepts. The Eagles have been able to generate more pressure on the quarterback recently, both from the defensive line and with the blitz, which has been vital to the defense's surge. Bill Davis (who was the Cardinals defensive coordinator in 2009-10), with two weeks of preparation, will have to figure out a way to get Palmer out of his comfort zone and disrupt the chemistry he has developed with Fitzgerald and Floyd.
Players to Watch
Safety Nate Allen (No. 29)
Many Eagles fans were ready to give up on Allen after a subpar 2012 season, but the South Florida product has rebounded in a big way in 2013. Allen is third on the team in tackles behind DeMeco Ryans and Kendricks and has vastly improved his tackling skills this season, which was perhaps the most criticized part of his game. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen has missed just two tackles all season long, and the Eagles will need to finish their hits against a potentially dangerous Arizona offense. Whether Allen is paired up with Chung or anyone else, the Eagles safeties must continue to do what they've done all season long, keep the plays in front of them.
Wide Receiver Brad Smith (No. 16)
Though Smith was on the field for 17 special teams snaps, he only saw one offensive snap in his Eagles debut against the Washington Redskins. Now that Kelly has had more time to get to know his newest receiver-returner-quarterback, let's see if he becomes a bigger part of the offense. Keep an eye on No. 16 whenever and wherever he takes the field.
Tight end Rob Housler (No. 84)
In his third NFL season, Housler has emerged as a reliable target for Palmer. Opposing defenses have been paying a lot of attention to the Cardinals wide receiver corps, and Housler has benefitted from that, catching 28 passes on the season and averaging 11.2 yards per reception. Housler can move well for his 6-foot-5 size, and he could end up making the Eagles pay if they forget about him.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby (No. 56)
The Cardinals have been led by their defense this season, and Dansby has been the leader of the pack. The tenth-year linebacker out of Auburn leads the team with 88 total tackles and has also chipped in with 3.0 sacks. Dansby came up big against the Colts with a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown, and he will make his presence known at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon.