The Eagles are once again underdogs. People doubted Nick Foles last year. They believe in Foles this year, but question the rest of the team.
The Bears are 12-4. The Eagles only went 9-7 so it is easy to see the reason for doubt. The Eagles were 4-6 at one point and lost to the Saints by 41 points. The Bears' worst loss was by seven points to the Patriots. Those guys really did have a great season.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it looks at the whole season. The Eagles are very different now than they were in September, October, or even parts of November. That's what happens when you have 13 guys on Injured Reserve and plenty of other players who have missed time over the course of the season.
The Eagles have been a different team since they hit rock bottom in the loss at New Orleans. They are 5-1 in that stretch. The Bears are 5-1 in their last six games as well. Let's compare the teams beyond that.
The Eagles averaged 382 yards and 27 points over the last six games. The Bears averaged 321 yards and 21 points over the same period. As for defense, the Eagles allowed 347 yards and 20 points per game. The Bears' juggernaut defense allowed 275 yards and 15 points per game.
You can see the Eagles had the better offense and the Bears the better defense. You can also see the teams are more evenly matched than you might expect. If you look at the overall season numbers, the Bears are clearly the better team. The problem is that the Bears won't be facing the full-season Eagles. They'll be facing the hot team from the end of the year. That's why I think it is important to focus on those numbers.
You can also add the quality of competition into the mix. Over the final six games, the Eagles played three division winners, two of them on the road. The Eagles went 2-1 and the loss was in overtime. The Bears played one playoff team, also a division winner. That was in Chicago, and the Bears won. The Eagles faced a real challenge at the end of the year and they came through it in impressive fashion.
Head coach Doug Pederson has a tough task in trying to attack this Bears defense. They are hard to run on. They led the NFC in sacks so they can really get after the quarterback. They also have one of the best secondaries in football. There really is no weakness.
Pederson is at his best when facing great defenses. The Broncos came to Philadelphia a year ago with the No. 1 defense. The Eagles scored 51 points in that game and dominated. Minnesota had the No. 1 defense when the teams met in the NFC title game. The Eagles scored 31 points on offense and moved the ball up and down the field all night long.
This is on the road and that will make things tougher. Crowd noise becomes a factor. The quality of the field could be a factor.
One other thing makes this defense extra tough -- they led the league in takeaways. The Bears catch the ball when it is thrown their way. If it is on the ground, they always seem to recover the fumble. Chicago's defense had six return touchdowns, so they aren't satisfied with just getting the ball. They want to score.
How do the Eagles attack this group?
The key to the game will be the play of the offensive line. Those guys must open holes for the run game and give Foles enough time to get the ball out. The Eagles' line has played really well in recent weeks, but this is arguably the best front seven in the league.
Lane Johnson has the toughest task, trying to slow down Khalil Mack. Johnson got the best of him a year ago when the Eagles beat the Raiders. You can bet Mack remembers that. He's also playing on a much better defense so stopping him will be a challenge.
Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman get a strong push up the middle. That makes life really difficult for quarterbacks, who can't step up and know Mack is flying off the edge.
Pederson will build his game plan around protection. There will be some double-teams on Mack. Pederson will have backs chip block him on some plays. There will also be fakes and rollouts to try to slow him down.
Foles knows the Bears have a terrific pass rush, so he will be trying to get the ball out as quickly as possible. He can pick and choose when to hold it and be more aggressive, but you don't want to do that too much.
A quick passing game requires players to make smooth catches and get yards after the catch. Maybe this will be Golden Tate's chance to shine. He is dangerous after the catch. Nelson Agholor could also help with catching short throws and adding yards.
Darren Sproles could be huge in this game. His ability to run routes out of the backfield makes him dangerous. He can turn a short pass into a big gain, as he's done in recent weeks. Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith is fast and athletic. It will be interesting to see if Sproles can get the best of him.
Not everything can be safe. Foles will have to take some chances. He will try to get the ball down the field to Alshon Jeffery a time or two. Chicago is really good on the back end, but you must test the secondary. It helps that Jeffery can catch the ball even when he's covered. He's got strong hands and plays through contact.
The Eagles aren't likely going to light up the Bears, but they can score enough to win this game.
The Bears' offense hasn't been great down the stretch. Mitchell Trubisky hurt his shoulder in November and hasn't been the same player. He's still very athletic and a talented quarterback, but his arm just isn't 100 percent right now.
The Eagles' defense can slow down the Bears. Chicago loves to run the ball. The Bears were sixth in the league in rushing attempts. The Eagles haven't allowed anyone to run for more than 82 yards in a game over the past three weeks. Jim Schwartz's run defense is coming together at the right time of the year.
Tim Jernigan has returned to the lineup and that has helped. Haloti Ngata is finally healthy and is playing his best football. Jordan Hicks is healthy and helping out. The starting corners, Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas, are both good run defenders. Everyone is pitching in.
Chicago has one of the most creative offenses in the league. Three wide receivers had six or more rushes this year. You don't know who is getting the ball or how they are getting it. The Eagles must play smart. They must play disciplined.
If you fall for fakes or misdirection, you leave yourself vulnerable to big plays. The Eagles have faced mobile quarterbacks and creative offenses down the stretch, so hopefully that experience will pay off.
I'm interested to see how Schwartz deals with the Bears. The Eagles' defensive line has been outstanding in recent weeks. The Bears have a solid offensive line, but the Eagles do have an advantage here.
Chicago struggles with handling the blitz so it might make sense to load the box and attack the Bears. That just hasn't been the Eagles style under Schwartz. They used the third-fewest blitzes in the league this year.
The one skill player the Eagles must stop is Tarik Cohen. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry this year and caught 71 passes. Cohen will absolutely remind you of a younger version of Sproles. Both are small and very elusive. The Eagles will likely use a combination of linebackers and safeties to handle Cohen. He's the biggest weapon the Bears have on offense.
The Bears are legitimately one of the best teams in the league this year. Their record is no fluke. Put on the game tape and you'll come away impressed. At the same time, they haven't been challenged much this year.
Chicago won their division with ease. They only really played a couple of tough opponents, the Rams and the Patriots. I don't know if this team is ready for the intensity of playoff football. The Bears haven't played in the postseason since 2010. This will be the first playoff game for a lot of guys on that roster.
The Eagles have been playing to stay alive for the past few weeks. They are already in playoff mode. They won the Super Bowl last year and know how hard it is to win games in January.
This is likely going to be an ugly defensive battle. Think back to the playoff game against the Falcons a year ago. I think the Eagles will make one or two more plays than the Bears and win a tough game.
The Eagles have said just give us a chance. Well, they are in the tournament. On Sunday, we'll see if they can beat the Bears and really scare the heck out of some other teams.