It has been anything but an ordinary week for the Philadelphia Eagles, but what, exactly, has gone according to plan in the world of 2021? Football notwithstanding, this has been a wild ride of a year. We're all adjusting, all adapting, to a new and strange time. So, as the Eagles prepare for tonight's game against the Washington Football Team, let's harken back to a basic premise of the NFL: Home-field advantage.
On a perfect football night in South Philadelphia, the Eagles and Washington play for the first time this season in what should be a classic NFC East game. Both teams are 6-7, both have battled adversity through the year, and both play the rugged brand of physical football that this division is known for. In a crowded NFC playoff picture, the winner stays in the thick of things with three weeks to go in the regular season.
This is the kind of night where the Eagles want to, of course, jump out to a quick start coming off of their bye week – with two-plus days added – and play 60 great minutes of football. They've rallied around the schedule change and have processed the move with professionalism and focus.
Now it's time to win a "playoff" game.
With that, we're going to watch how Jalen Hurts handles a strong Washington front, how the Eagles' defense contains the explosiveness of standout wide receiver Terry McLaurin, and how each offense establishes the running game. But it's more than just what happens on the field that's going to matter tonight, so in the context of Things to Watch Tonight, let's begin with a focus on the fans in the stands.
1. Eagles Fans, bring your "A" game!!
Can't say it enough: The fans mean a lot tonight. Look, we know how the fans feel about the schedule change because Eagles fans have been extremely vocal about their feelings. Everyone was ready for a Sunday, 1 PM kickoff. Plans were made. Family traditions were to be continued. And then along came a COVID-19 outbreak with Washington (along with Cleveland and the Rams) and the NFL moved three games – one to Monday night and two to tonight. How many family plans were uprooted in this Holiday week? Plenty, we know.
And understand this: The Eagles organization appreciates every fan who is able to move things around to attend tonight's game. You are vital to the success of the Eagles in this one, because, well, Tuesday night games aren't the norm in the NFL and nobody really knows how the players are going to respond. So, to all the fans coming tonight: Bring it. Bring it loud and bring it proud, because you are part of the family and you can help make a positive difference in this football game tonight.
In advance, thank you for attending. Let's hear it for 60 minutes – and then some.
2. The running games could dictate the win
The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing at 160 yards per game. They've been overpowering defenses with a physical offensive line and a downhill rushing attack and it's going to be great to have Hurts healthy, to have Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard ready to go. Left guard Landon Dickerson is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, so that means a change to the starting offensive line, and it's a shame because Dickerson and left tackle Jordan Mailata were key to the rushing success. Washington has a top-10 run defense and an attacking style, and the extra couple of days have helped the WFT get their defensive line back to near-full strength. The Eagles want to establish the ground game and Washington is going to try to take it away. Great matchup.
On the other side, the WFT has a power back in Antonio Gibson and wants to pound, pound, pound, and then hit with the play-action passing game. Washington won't have star right guard Brandon Scherff, also on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and that's a hit to that offensive line. Philadelphia has been terrific against the run, allowing only one 100-yard game in the last six outings (New Orleans). Dallas stuffed Washington's run game two Sundays ago and built a 24-0 halftime lead. That's a great blueprint to follow.
3. Eagles secondary has a big test
McLaurin is the real deal, with 61 receptions for 808 yards and 5 touchdowns this season, and he's been tough to handle in the four games he has played against the Eagles – 22 catches, 356 yards, 3 touchdowns. Will the Eagles match Darius Slay on McLaurin? Will they mix it up? This is one to watch. Washington has a deep set of wide receivers, so McLaurin isn't the only concern, but he's a really good receiver who nobody really talks about. The Eagles know all about him.
4. Red zone needs to be an Eagles victory
A key part of the game, as always. Touchdowns win, right? Washington is 13th-best in the NFL in red zone defense and the Eagles' offense has been strong for most of the year, ranking sixth most effective scoring touchdowns. The ability Hurts has to create with his legs is a huge part of that and Washington has struggled with some mobile quarterbacks this season – New York's Daniel Jones and Buffalo's Josh Allen made big plays with their legs – and Hurts offers as dangerous a threat on the ground as any quarterback.
No matter how they do it, the Eagles need to score touchdowns in the red zone. Washington is 28th in the NFL offensively inside the 20-yard line, but the WFT has scored touchdowns on 71.43 percent of its visits in the last three games. That's something to keep an eye on. The Eagles need to win here.
5. The best quarterback wins this game
It could change late in the day, but Washington could be without both Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, both of whom were still on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Tuesday morning. Regardless, the play at this position is so critical. Both defenses are intent on taking the football away. Both defenses are aggressive. The turnover battle is so important. How many times do you look at the result of a game and find that the quarterback who played the best wins the game? That's how it often plays out in the NFL.
6. Other statistics that matter
Remember when the Eagles had the most penalties in the entire NFL? Now they have the 21st most, a high tribute to coaching and player discipline. That's going to be a key statistic. Explosive plays will be another as defined by passing plays of 16-plus yards and running plays of 10-plus yards. Field position is going to be a critical part of how this game is coached and played.
Hey, the truth is that everything matters and, to reiterate, that includes the fans. It's a playoff game, so a playoff atmosphere is in order. Welcome to Tuesday Night Football, prime time. Nobody is thrilled about this, but that's just the way it is. Now, let's go out and make the best of it and beat Washington, get to 7-7, and then move forward. Nobody is complaining. Nobody is looking ahead. The challenge is very real tonight, and everyone plays a part in the success of the Eagles in a game that means so much.