Numbers can be funny things. Consider, for instance, the ones that say the Eagles have had one of the better defenses in the NFL over the last couple of months. In their last nine games, only four teams have allowed fewer points. Only five teams have allowed fewer yards. Only two teams have held opponents to a lower success rate on third down. The Patriots have worse marks in all three categories. So do the 49ers.
When you sit back and consider the chances that the Eagles can accomplish what is necessary to advance to a second Super Bowl in three years, the biggest hurdle that exists is the notion that this team can keep opposing wide receivers in front of them often enough to win three straight games over playoff-quality opponents. On the offensive side of the ball, their path to Miami, however improbable, is grounded in a reality that we have previously seen. Lane Johnson returns to right tackle, DeSean Jackson returns to stretch the field, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott continue their upward trajectories, and Carson Wentz plays like an MVP. That’s a recipe that can easily result in more than enough points to keep the Eagles competitive against any one of the other five NFC playoff teams.
Yet even in a world in which all of that comes to fruition, the question remains: How many points will Wentz and the offense need to score in order to score more than the other team? Numbers are funny, and so is all of our talk about a quarterback’s postseason legacy. Because while the latter is certainly contingent on his individual performance, it is equally as beholden to the 50 percent of the snaps that he cannot control.
Whatever the overall numbers say — for instance, that the Eagles held opponents scoreless on 66.5 percent of their drives this season, the third-best mark in the NFC — they do not overshadow performances like the one we saw against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the mighty Dolphins in Week 13. Or against Dwayne Haskins and the Redskins in Week 15. In all likelihood, the road to Super Bowl LIV is going to run through at least two and possibly three of the best quarterbacks in the game today, starting with Russell Wilson on Sunday evening. What makes anybody think that will end up working out in the Eagles’ favor?
Maybe it isn’t as far-fetched as our eyes would lead us to believe. In the Seahawks, the Eagles face an opponent that plays to their strengths about as thoroughly as any team in the league. Only two teams in the NFL called a higher percentage of rushing plays during the regular season than the Seahawks. If the Eagles get by Seattle, there’s a good chance their divisional matchup would come against the 49ers, who led the conference in rush frequency. If a berth in the NFC championship game becomes a question of whether Schwartz can stop the run, the proposition as a whole sounds a lot less daunting.
In the Eagles’ 17-9 loss to Seattle in November, 102 of the 174 rushing yards they allowed came on three runs by Rashaad Penny, including a 58-yard touchdown burst early in the fourth quarter that helped seal the game. The Seahawks have lost three out of their four games since Penny suffered a season-ending ACL injury. They’ve also lost starter Chris Carson, who landed on injured reserve after suffering a hip injury in Week 16. In the Seahawks’ loss to the 49ers on Sunday, they split carries between sixth-round rookie Travis Horner and 33-year-old Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed with the team after sitting out the first 16 weeks of the season.
“They’ve always been a good running offense, and I think it sets up a lot of their boot game, a lot of their play-action game,” Schwartz said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we’re up for that. We gave up a long run last time. It wasn’t our best play, but you miss one tackle and they can go the distance. I think all their guys have that ability.”
Take away that 58-yard run by Penny and Saquon Barkley’s 68-yarder in Week 17, and the Eagles have held opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry since Tim Jernigan returned from a foot injury in Week 9.
“Timmy has been really on the rise and has been playing some impactful ball for us over these last few weeks,” Schwartz said. “And we’re going to need it. We got a tough chance ahead of us, not only stopping the run game, but trying to affect the quarterback.”
That’s where Schwartz himself might be the biggest reason to hope that the Eagles can avoid a repeat of the loss to the Dolphins, when their inability to stop Ryan Fitzpatrick and DeVante Parker ruined an afternoon in which Wentz threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns and the offense put up 31 points. One of the peculiarities of this year’s defense is that it has been at its best against the best of the quarterbacks it has faced. Wilson’s Seahawks managed just 17 points, the same number mustered by Tom Brady and the Patriots. Aaron Rodgers threw for 414 yards and the Packers put up 27 points, but the Eagles walked out of Lambeau Field with a win.
Over the last two postseasons, Schwartz has been at his best in the NFC playoffs, orchestrating schemes that have held the Falcons, Vikings, Bears and Saints to an average of 13 points per game. More often than not, his units have shown an ability to improve over the course of the year (witness last year’s regular season and postseason contests against New Orleans, and this year’s two-game series against the Cowboys). While their struggles this season have been very real, and while they remain the biggest reason to doubt a repeat of 2017, the Eagles’ defense is a veteran unit with a veteran play-caller who has proven himself in plenty of big games.
On Tuesday, somebody asked Schwartz about the challenge of facing Wilson, given the long postseason resume that he will bring to the field.
“Well, we do, too,” Schwartz replied.