Some of the key measurables for this Eagles offense suggest things are going very, very well. Their 220 points rank fourth in the NFL. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has been largely consistent from game to game, if not necessarily from quarter to quarter within each game. Brian Westbrook is just rounding into shape after missing a couple of games with injury, and wide receiver Kevin Curtis is clearly improving after missing six games with the sports hernia injury.
And yet, as all parties agree, there are parts of the offense the Eagles must improve if they hope to beat the best of the best teams in the NFL.
So when the very best of the best teams in the NFL comes to town on Sunday night, the Eagles offense is going to very much be on the spot. And if you believe the overall premise that Andy Reid has preached for years as the head coach here, the real areas on which to focus are the offensive line and the quarterback, McNabb.
First, the offensive line. There are definitely questions about this group, especially considering the sporadic running attack the Eagles have had throughout the year. But in the big picture, a passing team has kept its quarterback remarkably upright in eight games. McNabb has thrown 288 passes and has been sacked 13 times, a very good ratio for an offensive philosophy that emphasizes the throw game.
On Sunday night, of course, the Eagles face a Giants defense molded in the vision created by Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Steve Spagnuolo coached with the Eagles for eight seasons before taking the opportunity to become New York's defensive coordinator last year, and his masterful X's and O's strategy keyed the Giants' Super Bowl victory in February.
Spagnuolo, like Johnson, believes in pressure. Take away the big plays. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage by playing "downhill" defense and make quarterbacks move off their spot and throw into coverage or hold the ball too long. Despite losing star ends Michael Strahan (retirement) and Osi Umenyiora (injury), the Giants lead the NFL with 30 quarterback sacks en route to a 7-1 record and a lead in the NFC East.
McNabb knows full well how lethal the Giants are when they rush the passer. He has faced this team for nine seasons and has had some of his most memorable – and most unpleasant – moments against the Giants. At the top of mind is the two losses from a year ago – the 12-sack embarrassment at Giants Stadium in a nationally-televised loss in September and then a dagger-to-the-playoff-hopes loss at Lincoln Financial Field in December.
In both games, the Giants effectively bottled up what the Eagles wanted to do offensively. The first game isn't a fair gauge, because the Eagles played without left tackle Tra Thomas, running back Brian Westbrook and tight end L.J. Smith. McNabb never had a chance.
In the second game, though, the Eagles opened with a marvelous touchdown drive and then the Giants snuffed out McNabb and Co. by dominating the line of scrimmage, taking away McNabb's downfield options and swarming the Eagles' backfield until late in the game when McNabb led a desperation drive that ended on David Akers' 57-yard field goal attempt that clanged off the right upright in a 16-13 loss.
Since that loss, the teams have had different perspectives. New York went on to win the Super Bowl. The Eagles played out the string with three straight wins late in December and used those three games as reason to believe the team was better in 2007 than the record indicated.
Halfway through this season, both teams are contenders. The Giants have rolled with seven wins – five at home – are playing with extreme confidence. The Eagles have reeled off three victories in a row and are starting to understand how good they can be when everything comes together.
The stage is set.
And the onus is on the offensive line and McNabb to make it all work for the offense. Look, we know the Giants are really, really good up front. Justin Tuck is one of the rare players who is a great pass rusher both at tackle and at end. The Giants have depth and are physical and come at teams in waves. Spagnuolo orders a variety of blitzes and his defense plays with an uncommon togetherness and confidence.
New York has an excellent defense, and the Giants' goal is to attack the line of scrimmage. The Giants are going to test the Eagles from one side of the line of scrimmage to the other. They're going to run games – twists, stunts, fun things like that – and they are going to challenge the Eagles by trying to match punches to the mouth.
On McNabb's side, the key is to know what he is seeing and then to drop back, plant his foot and make quick decisions. McNabb either throws the football or he takes off. Holding the football is suicide against the Giants. And while McNabb is one of the best at buying time with his feet, well, it is a hard tact to take against this defense.
The Giants are not a perfect defense. I've seen the Browns have success. San Francisco moved the ball up and down the field before quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan threw the ball all over the yard and the Giants secured a victory. The Giants have holes. Every scheme has holes.
In the days between now and Sunday, the coaches will prepare a game plan and the players will practice what they intend to execute on Sunday night. The chess match is on. The Eagles offense, which has done so many good things, still has a lot of areas in which it can improve.
That is the truly exciting part of the offense. There are flaws and we can all see them, but the Eagles are moving the football well and they're scoring points and they have Westbrook and Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown back in the lineup and they are improving every week.
Part of the equation on Sunday night is how the Eagles offense fares against the Giants defense. There are other pieces at play here, but now the focus is on the offense and the idea that the Eagles can put it all together for 60 minutes and make something special out of the biggest game of the season to date.