To top the Giants and win the NFC East, the Eagles will need to get defensive on the road, for a change
The defensive unit has been stingy at home, but has struggled on the road. With the offense missing so much, that needs to change in the regular season finale.
The Eagles can’t count on holding the New York Giants to 17 points Sunday, and giving them absolutely nothing after halftime, as they did in their 23-17 overtime victory at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 9.
At least, they can’t count on it if the Eagles’ season-long pattern continues in the regular-season finale at MetLife Stadium, in which the visitors hope to nail down the NFC East title and its accompanying home playoff game against the loser of the San Francisco at Seattle contest.
Jim Schwartz’s defense has been much better at home this season than on the road, and not just a little bit. Eagles opponents score 16.7 points per game at the Linc, 29.0 points per game elsewhere. The yardage difference is 273.7 to 388.7.
This is not just a quirky statistical note, it’s a major theme of 2019. If the Eagles’ season ends Sunday, with a loss to the Giants accompanied by a Dallas win at home over Washington, the most likely recipe for disaster is one in which the defense can’t provide enough help to an injury-ravaged offense, now missing tight end and leading receiver Zach Ertz, along with its top three wide receivers.
The home-road difference for a defense is visceral. The Linc crowd is loud, opponents have to run silent snap counts, giving the pass rush at least a tiny edge. Twenty-five of the Eagles’ 38* sacks have come at home. (*– they piled up 10 sacks in one home game against the Jets.)
The Eagles, 5-3 at home, come into Sunday 3-4 on the road. But they have won their last six meetings with the Giants, who are 2-5 this season at home.
“We gotta create our own energy” on the road, Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas said this week. “Everyone feeds off energy. Energy is a crazy thing. We’re out there balling, and we’re hyped, we’re getting good field position for the offense to score. We create that energy and then we give it to [the offense]. They take it over, they give it back – they scored, we’re hyped.
“Whereas, when we’re home, the energy is kind of already set, because our fans are so crazy.”
Energy was a topic around the Eagles this week, and not just because the season has come down to a road game. Doug Pederson acknowledged Friday that matching the level of intensity that carried the Eagles to an upset victory last Sunday over Dallas – the arch rival, the team that embarrassed them 37-10 in Arlington, Tx., on Oct. 20 – is a tough task, despite this week’s obvious stakes.
“That’s a real thing,” Pederson said. “For me, it's just about communication and just bringing it to kind of the forefront of my messaging to the team. We poured a lot into that win on Sunday, and that's the thing that I think [about], coming into the next week, is having that mental and emotional letdown.
“This, to me, is a bigger game, obviously, than last week. I know our guys are going to be ready. They've prepared this week that way. But for me, as the coach, [I] just keep reminding them the importance of this week and the importance of this game and staying focused and all that.”
Defensive end Brandon Graham put this final step in the quest for the division title in slightly different terms: “Now we’ve got to go finish it. If we want the hat, want the T-shirt, we gotta make sure we go out there and [do what we’ve done recently] – getting the work in, so that we’ll be prepared on Sunday.”
The key to the defense’s performance last week, aside from Dak Prescott’s shoulder injury, was that it tackled crisply and played the run with a fierce, physical mindset. This was also the case in the best road game the defense has played, the 31-13 victory at Buffalo on Oct. 27.
Graham said there is no reason why the defense can’t play that way again this week, from the opening series.
“It’s playoff mode, man. You got to get your mind right,” he said. “My mind is focused on, every game is going to be physical, until it’s not. Hopefully, we’re on the bench sitting down [with the win locked up] because we put in good work on the field … you gotta let people know early that we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”
Douglas, who could be back in the defensive game plan with Ronald Darby on IR and Jalen Mills questionable with an ankle injury, said Pederson is never one for allowing the team to bask in the glow of a victory.
“The win is only big on Sunday. Once it’s Monday, we don’t even care about that win,” Douglas said. “Ain’t nobody in here talking about Dallas.”
The Eagles should have a significant fan presence Sunday, despite the forecast calling for rain. Of course, they had a strong fan presence at Miami on Dec. 1, and the defense melted down in a 37-31 loss.
“It’s always nice to play at home. I think our players feed off the energy of the crowd,” Schwartz said this week. “I think that was evident [in the Dallas game], too. I came over about 10 o’clock in the morning over here and the parking lots were already filled, and you could feel that excitement.
“So I think that's certainly a part of it, and crowd noise is a little part of it, but we're going to try just as hard on the road as at home, and we have the same process, so after that, I really can't answer [why there is such a disparity].”
It would be understandable if the Eagles sagged Sunday against a young Giants team that has scored 77 points in winning its last two games. The Eagles have been in playoff mode since the Miami loss, needing extraordinary efforts to get from 5-7 to 8-7, to get to a place where they control their destiny in Week 17. Yet the injuries to key players continue to accumulate. At some point, it all becomes too much, the toothpaste tube really is empty, there isn’t just one more brushful.
Pederson said it is his job, and that of his staff, to make sure that point isn’t reached this week, on the cusp of the postseason.
“I challenged the coaching staff to make sure our players are on point with everything and dialed in on the game plan, because for us this is a playoff game, and we have to treat it that way,” Pederson said. “For me, the messaging has to be that direct, and it has to be that pinpointed.”
This story has been updated since it was originally posted.