This is a crucial one, for every reason. The Eagles have lost twice a row. The 49ers enter Lincoln Financial Field with a 2-1 record and as perhaps the team to beat in the NFC West. They are a conference rival. They are going to challenge an Eagles team that is searching to find itself.
So here we are. The season's first crossroads moment? Do the Eagles rise to the occasion and put together 60 good minutes of football, or do they continue to bewilder us with their inconsistency?
A lot of season remains. There are going to be plenty of telling moments in 2011. The goal of winning the Super Bowl is the only goal that matters. The Eagles aren't there yet, and in fact they are a 1-2 team now, and nothing more.
I expect a tough game against San Francisco. I will honestly tell you that the 49ers have been more impressive on defense and, certainly on special teams, than they have been on offense. San Francisco's offense has managed the game with a very conservative approach and the 49ers are going to have a gimpy Frank Gore for only some of the game. At least, that is what they are saying in the media about Gore and his injured ankle. San Francisco has a tremendous front seven defensively and an explosive special teams.
This is a winnable game. They all are, of course. To win, and to play 60 minutes of great football, the Eagles must ...
CONTAIN TIGHT END VERNON DAVIS
Juan Castillo has talked since the start of training camp about doing whatever it takes a win a game, and to win this game the Eagles can't let the mega-talented Vernon Davis ruin the defense. He is capable of doing just that with his size and speed. He runs like a receiver. He's a big tight end. How do the Eagles deal with Davis?
A lot of fans expect the Eagles to assign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to Davis, and leave those two alone. It doesn't quite work that way in this league. There are going to be combination coverages and plenty of different looks the Eagles want to give Davis. Perhaps Asomugha will be involved; he said he was planning on covering Tony Gonzalez at times in Atlanta, but that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's ankle injured marred the plans.
It's going to be interesting to see how Castillo adjusts his defense. The idea here is to take away a singular weapon, easily the most dangerous piece of the 49ers. We think of the Eagles' defense as being incredibly versatile because of all the cover cornerbacks, and here is a chance to see just how versatile it is.
FREE DeSEAN JACKSON
The big-play playmaker has just 4 catches the last two games, both defeats. The Eagles are seeing a lot of soft coverage and two-deep zone stuff, and Jackson's vertical game is not there. It's time to counter punch. The Eagles need to get Jackson the ball.
They tried early against the Giants, giving Jackson a quick throw and a handoff and then it was difficult to get the ball in his hands. What's going on here?
The Eagles can't let defenses take Jackson away. There are plenty of weapons here, but the Eagles need plays down the field to loosen up the coverage. Jackson is the best of the deep threats, so the Eagles need to get him in space for catch and runs or take some shots down the field.
When he is catching passes, the Eagles offense puts points on the board. When he is quiet, as we've seen the last two weeks, there are struggles more often than not.
WIN BATTLE IN THE RED ZONE
It's been tough sledding for the defense in the red zone, and the offense has been as inconsistent as ever. Something has to improve here. The Eagles just can't be this inefficient in the red zone. They need to improve dramatically in every phase in the red zone to have a great season.
The personnel changes on defense will be looked at closely, with Brian Rolle starting for Casey Matthews at weak side linebacker and Nate Allen starting for Kurt Coleman at safety.
Offensively, the Eagles must execute. They need to be aggressive and physical and confidence. There is clearly a need for some success here to boost the confidence level.
TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Expect chilly temperatures and some wind throughout the day. David Akers and Andy Lee are experienced at the NFL level in poor conditions. Eagles' rookies Alex Henery and Chas Henry are not, obviously.
San Francisco has scored twice on kick returns already this season. The Eagles are looking for a big return.
Bobby April's group has its most difficult opponent to date. Let's see the Eagles rise to the moment. They need to win the battle of field position and keep the 49ers pinned deep in their own territory. Short fields are not friendly fields for the Eagles defense.
There are obvious statistical comparisons to be made in the one. Who wins the turnover battle is in great shape. The injury factor is significant. The fourth quarter, where the Eagles have lost the last two games, is a key area.
We are going to see how the Eagles play with the pressure of an early-season "must win" game at home. Are they loose and playing great football? Or are they tight and in another struggle?
My palms are sweaty. I want a win. I am desperate for one. Is this football team feeling the same way?