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Eagles-Cardinals Game Preview

Originally, this game was billed as the homecoming for former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was traded to the Cardinals in exchange for Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick one year after Kolb was installed as the Eagles' starting quarterback. After opening the season with a win in Week 1, the Cardinals then dropped their next six games while Kolb completed 58.6 percent of his passes, throwing eight touchdowns and eight interceptions for a quarterback rating of 77.8 (still a significant upgrade from the Cardinals' combined quarterback rating of 60.5 in 2010). Kolb then suffered a turf toe injury in Week 8, opening the door for John Skelton who helped the Cardinals pull out an overtime victory last week over the St. Louis Rams, though the real hero was rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson who won the game with a 99-yard punt return for a touchdown in overtime. Kolb is reportedly unlikely to suit up at Lincoln Financial Field this week, muting some of the game's intrigue.

For the Eagles, the focus will be, once again, on limiting mistakes. As Andy Reid noted in his Tuesday press conference, self-inflicted wounds like penalties and turnovers, particularly in the red zone where the Eagles have a league-leading six giveaways, continue to derail the team. After several games devoid of the big play in the passing game for the Eagles, the Cardinals pass defense will be a welcome sight, as Arizona ranks 29th in passing yards allowed per game (272) and 22nd in passing yards allowed per play (7.40). DeSean Jackson, in particular, has been notably quiet, combining for only eight catches and 93 yards over the last three games. Expect Michael Vick and the Eagles offense to make a concerted effort to air it out on Sunday afternoon in the final game of a three-game home stand. 

Last Time They Met:
January 18, 2009: Eagles 25, Cardinals 32

Following an improbable run to qualify for a Wild-Card spot after a 5-5-1 start to the season, the Eagles rattled off consecutive playoff wins and found themselves playing in the NFC Championship game for the fifth time in head coach Andy Reid's career. Offensively, it was a huge day for both teams. Quarterback Donovan McNabb threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns, including an electric 62-yarder to DeSean Jackson on then-Cardinal Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie that put the Eagles ahead 25-24 in the fourth quarter. However, the Cardinals were able to respond, as quarterback Kurt Warner threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day to put his team ahead 32-25 with just enough time for one final drive by the Eagles; they failed to capitalize upon it. Warner completed 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 279 yards with no interceptions. Dynamic pass-catcher Larry Fitzgerald had a career day, catching nine balls for 152 yards and three touchdowns and the Cardinals advanced to the Super Bowl to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, to whom they lost 27-23.

When The Eagles Have The Ball:

After eight games, the Eagles rank third in total offense and first in rushing offense. And yet, with only a 25.4-point-per-game average, the Eagles are ninth in scoring. The reason for that? Turnovers, which have plagued the Eagles all season long, especially in the Red Zone, where they have a league-high six giveaways. This week, the Eagles go up against a Cardinals defense that only has 10 takeaways on the season. Where the Eagles have had plenty of success is in the running game, thanks in large part to the dominant start to the season from LeSean McCoy, who has scored at least one touchdown in each of the Eagles' games this season – an eight-game streak that ties the franchise mark set by Steve Van Buren in 1947. Meanwhile, in the passing game, the Eagles will look to get DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin back involved after a game in which they combined for their lowest output of the season against the Chicago Bears. One Eagle, meanwhile, who has reemerged as a receiver is tight end Brent Celek, who has more catches over the last two games than he did in the first six. The Cardinals have allowed 57.0 yards per game to opposing tight ends this season and rank 31st in covering the opposing tight end according to Football Outsiders.

With all the fanfare surrounding Kevin Kolb's potential return to Lincoln Financial Field, little attention has been paid to the similar homecoming of former Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley. Rather than re-sign Bradley, a free agent in the offseason, the Eagles moved on with Jamar Chaney and a crew of young linebackers who have steadily improved as the season has progressed. Meanwhile, Bradley has found himself as a backup for the Cardinals, playing behind inside linebacker Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon in the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. Up front, the Cardinals boast an imposing rusher in Darnell Dockett, a promising nose tackle in former first-round pick Dan Williams and another pass rusher in Calais Campbell, who leads the Cardinals with 4.5 sacks thus far in 2011. The secondary is a mix of youth and experience, as Adrian Wilson, the perennial Pro Bowler, stars at safety while rookie Patrick Peterson and second-year player A.J. Jefferson continue to come along. That unit will no doubt have their hands full as Maclin and Jackson look to remind the league of how dangerous they can be on the outside. 

When The Cardinals Have The Ball:

With Kevin Kolb unlikely to suit up in his old stomping grounds because of turf toe, the Cardinals are likely to be led by second-year quarterback John Skelton. Skelton, 6-6, 244, is a Fordham product with a strong arm, though he's occasionally inaccurate and is not mobile. Skelton did put up a solid performance in last week's win over the St. Louis Rams, when he threw for 222 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for an 85.7 quarterback rating. Skelton's desired target is likely to be Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best receivers over the last decade who continues to scare defenses with his precise route-running and ball skills. He will pose a challenge for the Eagles' talented trio of cornerbacks, which includes Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who went to a Pro Bowl as a Cardinal. On the ground, the Cardinals rely on Beanie Wells, when healthy, who is a wrecking ball of power between the tackles. In seven games this season, Wells, 6-2, 229, is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has seven touchdowns. Still, this has been an offense that has struggled to produce much over the course of the season, as they 25th in yards per game, 29th in time of possession and 22nd in points per game.

Of interest to the Eagles, the Cardinals also rank 28th in sacks allowed per pass attempt. After a week in which the Eagles' pass rush was disappointingly unable to sack Bears quarterback Jay Cutler even once, be sure that Jim Washburn's unit will be hungry to feast on Skelton or whoever lines up under center for the Cardinals. Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins and the newly activated Brandon Graham, among others, need to prove that last week was a fluke. Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown has allowed eight sacks according to ProFootballFocus, so it could mean a big afternoon for Cole especially.

Key Matchups: 
RB Beanie Wells vs. Eagles' Front Seven
With seven rushing touchdowns through as many games, running back Beanie Wells is beginning to make the presence at the NFL level that many believed he would make after being drafted 31st overall in 2009. The 229-pound power rusher's seven touchdowns tie him for third-most in the NFL, along with rookie quarterback Cam Newton and fellow running back Michael Turner. The Cardinals run the plurality of their running plays behind left tackle Levi Brown. That's good news for an Eagles defense that ranks first in the league on such runs, allowing a paltry 2.42 yards per carry when teams run to defensive end Trent Cole's side. The Ohio State-alum has been nursing a knee injury and was limited to just 20 yards on 10 carries Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt has indicated that Wells will suit up when the team travels to Philadelphia to face the Eagles

Players To Watch:

WR Larry Fitzgerald
Stopping the dynamic receiver is likely to be the focal point of Juan Castillo's defense. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has size at 6-3, 225 pounds, great hands and amazing athleticism. Fitzgerald has caught at least 90 passes in each of the past four seasons and led the league in touchdown receptions in back-to-back seasons from 2008-09. This year, Fitzgerald has 38 catches for 646 yards and three touchdowns. Despite Arizona's struggles, Fitzgerald gives maximum effort and consistently produces. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles defend him.

CB Patrick Peterson

Last Monday, the Eagles dealt with one of the all-time great return specialists in the Bears' Devin Hester. This week, it could be the next great returner in Arizona's first-round pick (No. 5 overall) in Peterson. The 6-0, 219-pound Peterson was considered by draft experts as the "can't-miss prospect" this year because of his cornerback skills, but he already has three punt return touchdowns in his rookie campaign and has scored one in each of the past two games. Peterson lifted the Cardinals to a win over St. Louis last Sunday with a 99-yard walkoff punt return touchdown in overtime. His three punt return touchdowns have already tied the franchise mark for most in a career. Peterson, of course, will also be a factor in the Cardinals pass defense as they look to control the likes of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

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