At 3-5 at the midway point in the season, who was really thinking playoffs? The idea then was to do as Chip Kelly said: Take it day by day, prepare as well as possible, and then play hard, fast and physical football on game days.
There were no end-of-the-season predictions from inside the organization. Instead, the approach remained consistent from the message in April.
"I can truly tell you that we've been thinking 'one day at a time' since Chip brought us all together in April. That hasn't changed at all," said linebacker Connor Barwin. "Nobody looked ahead during the regular season. Now that we're in the playoffs, nothing changes. We have the same purpose, and that is to prepare each day and be ready to win on game days. That's it."
It isn't splashy and it isn't sexy, but it sure is an effective way of making sure a roster that includes a lot of young faces and a lot of young players has its attention focused on the right things each and every day.
As the Eagles roared to a 7-1 record down the stretch, the possibility of playoffs increased. The standings in the NFC East changed suddenly. And no player or coach dared think of what could be. They stayed true to their habits because, as Kelly says, "habits reflect the mission."
"It's just making sure that you establish your attention to detail every day and when you do that, you're prepared," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "I feel we've been doing that since April."
It's January now, and the new year ushers in the postseason and the win-or-go-home reality in the NFL. New Orleans comes to town on Saturday night in what's going to be a fascinating matchup of personnel groupings and coaching philosophy. The Saints are an outstanding football team with quarterback Drew Brees leading an offense chock full of dangerous weapons and a rat-tat-tat tempo that exhausts defenses and puts a lot of points on the scoreboard. New Orleans (11-5 this season) has a defense ranked fourth in the NFL the employs Rob Ryan's pressure-based packages and a really strong pass rush to stymie offenses.
So, yeah, Saturday night (8:10 kickoff, NBC) is going to be a wild one, and a very tough game to win.
"They're an outstanding team and they generate a lot of pressure. Very tough group. A 3-4 look, something that we practice against every day," said center Jason Kelce. "They don't trick a lot, but they'll try to disguise things and it works very well for them."
As the New Year dawns and Saturday nears, the how-do-the-Eagles-win questions come into focus. Some thoughts ...
- A fast start is important. New Orleans will turn loose its pressure defense with a lead, and Brees is a master when he has the advantage. Obviously, the blueprint-game is what happened against Chicago, but that's not necessarily realistic. Some early points, a tempo-setting series or two from the defense and a rabid crowd will aid the cause on Saturday night.
- The Eagles are practicing outside for at least a couple of days this week to acclimate themselves to the cold. The temperature at kickoff on Saturday night is expected to be right around 18 degrees, and whatever wind there will be is going to make it even more frigid.
- How do the Eagles cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who has 16 touchdown catches among his 86 receptions and 1,215 yards this season? "I don't know if you leave a guy like that alone," said cornerback Bradley Fletcher. "He's a great talent. Six feet 7 and he runs so well. He is a very tough matchup for every team, obviously." Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has to worry about Graham, running back Darren Sproles, and a good group of wide receivers in the New Orleans passing game. This offense is right up there with Denver and Chicago in terms of assets and matchup challenges.
- The Eagles hope to have Colt Anderson back on the field in kick coverage this week, a help considering Sproles can turn games around with his return abilities. The Eagles need all hands on deck here. Kudos to the way Brad Smith and Brandon Boykin and Roc Carmichael and the coverage units have been hustling down the field and making plays all season. They'll need to come up big again on Saturday night.
- This Saints defense is nothing like the one from past seasons. It's really, really good. Good front, strong coverage group. Some nice depth to have a veteran like Roman Harper able to step in with rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro sidelined with an injury. Nick Foles has to be sharp at quarterback and very sure with his decisions. I guess I would offer that the Eagles need to establish the running game here and use all three backs and try to wear the Saints down.
Saints coach Sean Payton on the Philadelphia offense: "There's a lot of variety. You have to defend the whole field. They can attack you down the field, they've got outstanding weapons at receiver, they've got a fantastic running back (LeSean McCoy), the tight end (Brett Celek) is exceptional and you see the quarterback (Foles) operating with great poise. They do a great job with misdirection and a great job with creating those running lanes and really keeping you off balance defensively.
"It's hard to prepare for, it's hard to simulate in practice with the scout team. The pace is extremely fast, extremely fast. So we'll have our work cut out for us this week with just trying to replicate or give the same look from our scout team offense.
"You have to be prepared to stay in the personnel you have with them staying in the same personnel."
This is going to be a great game, and a great game within the game.