PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- This was the game, when you looked at it as the 2015 schedule was first available to see, that would be the telling tale for the Eagles as they embarked on December and the stretch run to the postseason. A tough game, no doubt, because the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions and nearly invincible at home in December, but an important gauge just to see where the Eagles ranked among the NFL's hierarchy.
What we thought then and what is reality now is vastly different. The Eagles are beginning the stretch run just one game back in the NFC East and they may very well be on a playoff run, but first they've got to stop a three-game losing streak that has dropped the Eagles from 4-4 and atop the division to 4-7 and in chase position.
There are enough reasons -- the return of quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Zach Ertz to the lineup, the added days of rest since the loss in Detroit on Thanksgiving, the general feeling that the Eagles' pride is stung after three straight losses -- to think that this team will play at peak efficiency and will push New England to the limit.
Then again, the real question is this: Can the Eagles do something they haven't done all season to beat New England, and that is to play a full 60 minutes of good football? No, it must be great football, not merely good. New England, though battered with some injuries, is a 10-1 football team smarting after its first loss of the season, last Sunday in Denver.
What's most disappointing in a season of disappointments is what has been missing. The Eagles haven't played a full game. They haven't put it all together for 60 minutes. We've been waiting. We've been wondering. Wins over New Orleans and the Giants were convincing, but marred. The road win over the Jets was up and down and ultimately too close for comfort in the fourth quarter. Beating Dallas in Arlington, Texas was exhilarating, yet flawed.
Now it's New England and quarterback Tom Brady and all that comes with his greatness. Can the Eagles win? Yes, of course. Can they afford to turn the ball over and drop passes and miss tackles and make the mistakes they've made that have led to 4-7? No chance.
Here are must-haves for the Eagles if they intend to push New England over the limit and score this huge win ...
- Collapse the pocket and reach Brady. Expect defensive coordinator Bill Davis to be aggressive. Expect him to come with a lot of pressure from every conceivable angle to reach Brady. Now, of course, the superstar quarterback understands that every defense wants to do that. He gets the football out of his hands quickly. The Eagles have to play their coverage men at the line of scrimmage, make sure they get their hands on the receivers and take some chances and play at premium efficiency. It's not an easy assignment. Nobody said it would be. But the Patriots are down some offensive weapons, the most notable the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, so the Eagles have to take some chances, play with confidence and win battles they haven't been winning lately.
- Bradford must have a huge day and make good decisions and withstand New England's varied defensive looks. How much can the Eagles run the football? They've got to keep the Patriots honest and eating some clock would help keep Brady off the field, but the Eagles also need to get some chunk plays in the passing game. Bradford is back after missing two-plus games. The offense missed him. The slide happened while Bradford was sidelined. Let's see how the offense responds.
- All of those 50/50 plays -- the bouncing footballs, the passes that go up for grabs, the kicking game -- have to work in the Eagles' favor. The teams that play with the most concentration and give the most effort usually win those kinds of plays. The Eagles have to be secure with the football and they have to be efficient when they get into the red zone. Touchdowns, not field goals.
In short, the Eagles must rise to the occasion with the season right there on the brink. The struggles of the NFC East have given the Eagles' postseason hopes some life, but time is running out. It's time to win. It's time to rise to the moment.
Do the Eagles have it in them to play that kind of game? This team has reached this moment in a manner that has been entirely unseen and on the kind of skid that is, frankly, extremely unsettling. The season hangs precariously. We'll see how much the Eagles can make the moment theirs and play like the type of team we all thought they would be way back when the schedules were announced and anything was possible.