Big game. Huge spot. The Eagles have a chance to show the rest of the country what kind of team this is tonight in the Monday Night Football game against Washington. We all expect a knock-down, drag-it-out kind of slugfest. But given what the Eagles have shown through five games, how can anyone really know what to expect?
There can't be a more unknown team at this stage of the season. The Eagles are 3-2 and as the record indicates, have been up and down and up and down. They have been involved in one close game, last week in the bummer in Oakland. They have been without their starting quarterback for two games, their starting left guard for five games, have suffered other serious injuries and ailments and stand here on the cusp of three straight games within the division knowing they control their destiny.
So what will they do with this golden opportunity?
You know, we have talked about the leadership on this team since Brian Dawkins left in free agency to sign with Denver. He is gone, as is Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas and all of those veterans who left in the off-season roster purge. No doubt the Eagles became a younger team in the spring and summer months. No question they added some very, very promising talent that should keep this team good for years to come.
But as the Eagles lost those veterans, they also lost an identity. And through five games, we don't know that the new identity has been established. Certainly, Eagles teams in the past would react to an abominable loss like the Eagles had last week and come out roaring tonight. Those teams would play with smoke coming out of their eyes, and they would play faster and more aggressively and more urgently than Washington tonight.
Do we know that this Eagles team will follow suit? The Eagles rebounded from their loss to New Orleans by smoking Kansas City and Tampa Bay, and thank goodness for that. Those two teams are awful, though, and anything less than the blowouts the Eagles registered would have been cause for concern.
In this spot, well, the Redskins haven't played very well through six games. They are 2-4, with controversy swirling. However, history tells us that tonight is going to be a nasty, bloody-knuckle kind of game, as most NFC East games are. Washington's defense is legitimately good, with a fast and strong front seven setting things up for physical defensive backs who are going to look to punish young wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Washington's linebackers have the speed and the size to stick with tight end Brent Celek. Albert Haynesworth is a house along the defensive line.
The Eagles laid an egg offensively in Oakland and have waited an agonizing eight days for redemption. Donovan McNabb took it upon himself to express the "embarrassment" everyone felt in losing to the Raiders. Losing that game, and then seeing the Jets destroy the Raiders on Sunday, is still bitter. Awful. Inexcusable.
The great thing about the NFL is that a new week brings a new scenario. And the scenario is this: A win tonight brings the Eagles to 4-2 with a chance to take the division lead in the next two weeks with games against New York and Dallas. A good team seizes the moment. Eagles teams in the past have done that. They have shrugged off early-season bumps in the road and have taken flight en route to division titles and deep playoff runs.
I'm looking for the same -- truthfully, more -- starting tonight at FedEx Field.
I've already said that tonight is a night for McNabb to shine and I'm sticking by it. Of course, for McNabb to get his job done, the offensive line has to play well after last week's tough outing. Todd Herremans makes his 2009 debut at left guard, and he will see a lot of Haynesworth. The Redskins are much improved at rushing the quarterback and playing well against the passing game, although they have not had as much success against the running game.
The numbers say the Eagles should run the football and then run it some more against Washington. That isn't necessarily the thinking of head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, however. The Eagles want to throw the ball early and score some points, and then run later and play the four-minute game and wind the clock down.
Defensively, the big question is how new middle linebacker Will Witherspoon fits in, particularly as it relates to the coverage on dangerous tight end Chris Cooley. Can the Eagles slow down the tight end who is so vital to what Washington does? Can the Eagles control the line of scrimmage against a Washington offensive line that is without starting guard Randy Thomas and left tackle Chris Samuels for the season? Can the defense disrupt quarterback Jason Campbell, who has struggled mightily this year but who plays so well against Philadelphia?
There are a hundred questions to ask about the Eagles and the Redskins, but the biggest one is this: Which Eagles team shows up tonight?
I think it is fair to say that if the Eagles are serious contenders, if they are a mature and worthy team, they will play a great football game against a desperate, wounded team. Really, that's what tonight is all about from this perspective. Washington beat the Eagles twice last year, once in late December when the Eagles had everything riding on the game and the offense couldn't get out of its own way in a crushing loss. Nobody is taking the Redskins lightly. Boy, I hope not.
I would love to tell you that I know what to expect in this game from your Philadelphia Eagles. Five games hasn't convinced me of much about the Eagles, other than the glimpses of greatness are there, and the glimpses of what-is-going-on-here? remain. Who are the Eagles?
We're going to begin to find out tonight, to find out just how much McNabb's words after the loss in Oakland resonated in the locker room, how much leadership there truly is on this team. Maybe we will learn a lot more about the talent level here. We're in love with these young players, but what are they going to be like with the glare of the national television cameras on them?
Once again, the Eagles are in a huge spot and they have so little margin for error. That is what happens when you lose games you have no business losing, like the one the Eagles lost last week in Oakland. The only way to wipe away that taste, and to gain some respect in the division, is to play great football tonight against Washington.
All of the elements are there for the Eagles. Big spot. Pressure situation. Hated rival on the other sideline, a team that whipped the Eagles' tails twice last year. Which Eagles team shows up tonight?