It is one thing, and fairly incorrect, to label a game in September or October as one that carries "great urgency" or one that indicates a "litmus test" of some sort for an NFL team. We tried that in Week 2 when the Eagles played Dallas and, in a narrow loss, provided the encouragement and the belief that the Eagles could play with any team in the league.
We're way past that now. Moral victories, never of import to the team, mean a whole lot of nothing in the big picture, anyway. As the Eagles line up for this keep-the-season-alive game against New York, everything is on the line. The Eagles need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. They need to win in the NFC East. They need to go on the road and beat an 11-1 team.
So what is this game going to tell us about your favorite football team? There are a bunch of things on the hook ...
**1. Can The Eagles Run the Football Against A Top Defense?
You know about the weather forecast. And you know that Nick Cole is starting at right guard. And you know the Giants are very good along their front seven. What we don't know is how much Andy Reid wants to run the football, and how he intends to scheme the run game. Kyle Eckel is expected to be active to get some playing time.
Are the Eagles going to come out running? What are the plans with the short-yardage approach? Do the Eagles tempt the edge, or are they going to go directly at the Giants? What about the offensive line, which reacted to criticism last week with a tremendous performance against Arizona?
Brian Westbrook needs to have a big game here. The Giants are going to key on him, of course, and the Eagles must work to get him in space. If Westbrook comes anywhere close to what he did against the Cardinals ...
**2. Is This Offense Ready To Start Quickly On The Road?
Here we go again. The Eagles are away from home and in recent outings away from the friendly confines the offense has struggled. The woes in Cincinnati and Baltimore are in the past, however. Donovan McNabb hopes to ride the momentum created last week and start well against a Giants defense against which he tossed three TD passes one month ago.
Everybody wants to know what the Eagles plan to do from a scheme standpoint. McNabb has to be good for the Eagles to win, because the Eagles are going to have to make some big plays in the passing game to score points. Nick Cole is a key up front, but the entire offensive line is on the spot here.
Big game. Big moment in the season and, truthfully, for the era here.
**3. Can The Run Defense Rebound?
Tough game last time around. You would think the Eagles will draw upon all of their pride and emotion and energy to improve on their run defense in this game. How much Jim Johnson's scheme changes is something to watch early. Washington loaded the box last week against the Giants, and Eli Manning passed for more than 300 yards and beat the Skins in the air.
We've talked all week about the run defense and about the players who must step forward and, well, it's going to take everyone. The Eagles need to rally to the football. All 11 defensive players must get on the ball and tackle well.
The question is this: Can the Eagles commit to the run and still cover well enough down the field to nullify big plays in the passing game? As much as the focus is on the running game, the Eagles know they can't give up huge yards in the passing game. The cornerbacks are on the spot here, too. Not just the front seven. The Eagles have to give a total team effort on defense.
**4. Is This Team Capable Of Playing An "A" Game Again?
Every team in the league can do what the Eagles did last Thursday. Once a season, just about every team in the NFL gets it going and plays the game of its collective season. But the good teams separate themselves by reaching that high level more than once. They play at a consistently high level, in fact.
That is something the Eagles haven't done this year. Maybe the win over Arizona was a sign of things to come for the Eagles. We sure hope that is the case. This is the test. This is the game that tells the Eagles just how well this particular team can rise to the occasion. This is a physical test and an emotional test and a mental test.
Can the Eagles play without turnovers? Without penalties? Can they block and run and catch the ball at a championship-caliber level for 60 minutes?
**5. What Does Andy Reid Have Up His Sleeve For A Big Game?
Reid is not a Knute Rockne kind of coach. He is not going to yell and scream and stomp his feet here. He is going to stay calm and composed and make sure his team follows. The Eagles need emotion, so it will be interesting to see where they draw that important element.
Reid has not fared well against the Giants the last couple of seasons. What kind of adjustments are planned for this game? What kind of difference can Reid make to win the battle against the Giants coaching staff?
It is an important game for everyone here. The Eagles have historically done very well in December under Reid, and he will have them ready to play a great game. And that is what it's going to take to win this one. The Giants aren't going to let down because they are 11-1 and way ahead of the NFC East pack. It doesn't matter that Plaxico Burress has been suspended, or that the Giants are in the middle of a three-game set of games against the division.
The Eagles need an "A" game to win. Can they do it with a season on the line?