The prevailing opinion right now is that the Eagles have no shot at the playoffs and Doug Pederson soon will be going bye-bye. But if the Eagles manage to beat the Cardinals on Sunday, and Seattle beats Washington, and the Giants lose to the Browns (or the Ravens next week), guess who’s sitting in the NFC East driver’s seat heading into the final two weeks of the regular season?
That’s right. The Eagles.
Now, let’s break down Sunday’s Eagles-Cardinals game and see what they need to do to pull out a win in the desert.
When the Eagles run
The Eagles’ 246 rushing yards against the Saints were their most in a game since 2014. They had not one but two 100-yard rushers against a defense that hadn’t given up a 100-yard rushing performance in 56 games. Rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts added a distinct running element to the offense in his first start. While his passing numbers were modest, he rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries. Hurts had seven of the Eagles’ 11 rushing first downs. If you take out his three game-ending kneel-downs, just four of Hurts’ 15 runs were scrambles. The other 11 were either designed runs or zone-reads.
Miles Sanders had one of his best games of the season, rushing for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. One of those runs was an 82-yard touchdown. It was his third run of 74 yards or more this season. Sanders is averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry. But if you take out the three long runs, that average drops to 4.0. In his last seven games, Sanders averaged just 11.6 carries. He had just two games with more than 15 carries. This is a guy the coaching staff touted as a workhorse back going into the season.
The Cardinals are 18th in run defense (119.5) and 20th in opponent rush average (4.5). They’ve given up 44 runs of 10 yards or more, including 17 in the last four games. The Eagles will start their 13th different offensive-line configuration after right tackle Jack Driscoll injured his knee against the Saints.
When the Eagles throw
Hurts’ passing numbers in his first NFL start — 17-for-30, 167 yards, 1 TD — were so-so. The best part was that he didn’t throw an interception or get sacked. His priorities were to get the ball out quickly, protect the ball, and avoid negative plays. Six of his first seven passes traveled three or fewer yards. Even his 39-yard completion to Jalen Reagor late in the first quarter came on an underneath crossing route just 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Fifteen of his 25 aimed throws were 6 or fewer yards. He threw just two deep balls (20 yards or more), both incompletions to Reagor. He completed just two passes on throws longer than 10 yards, including a nice back-shoulder pass with a blitzer in his face to Alshon Jeffery for a 15-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-2 early in the second quarter.
Hurts can extend plays, which will pose the same type of problems for the Cardinals defense that their own quarterback, Kyler Murray, will pose for the Eagles. The loss of Driscoll was a big blow. He’ll be replaced by Matt Pryor, who has struggled, particularly when he’s had to play at tackle. Pryor will spend much of the day going up against the Cardinals’ best pass-rusher, former Temple star Haason Reddick, who is coming off a five-sack performance against the Giants. In their previous five games, though, the Cardinals had only 10 sacks and a below-average 33.5 quarterback pressure percentage. They have a solid secondary, headed by cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Budda Baker.
When the Cardinals run
The Cardinals are fourth in the league in rushing (151.2). Kenyan Drake is sixth in rushing with 848 yards, but Murray isn’t far behind, with 712. Murray and Drake have combined for 19 of the Cardinals’ 20 rushing touchdowns. Drake is tied for fourth in rushing first downs with 51. Murray is tied for ninth with 46 on 115 carries. Murray has 29 runs of 10 yards or more, fourth-most in the league. To put that in perspective, one out of every four of Murray’s 115 runs have gained 10 or more yards.
The lion’s share of Drake’s carries (138 of 201) and yards (532 of 848) have come on first down. He has excellent straight-line speed with a good burst to the edge. Their other back, Chase Edmonds, is a good yards-after-contact runner. Murray is averaging 6.2 yards per carry on first down, 5.9 on second down, and 5.7 on third down. His double-digit-yard runs have been spread out. He’s got 10 on first down, nine on second down, eight on third down, and two on fourth down.
The Eagles have struggled against running quarterbacks. Twenty-two percent of the rushing yards they’ve given up have been to quarterbacks. Opposing signal-callers are averaging 5.6 yards per carry against the Eagles, compared twith3.8 by running backs. The Eagles are 24th in run defense, giving up 127.3 yards per game on the ground. That’s the worst ranking and most yards in Jim Schwartz’s five seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator. Teams are averaging 30 rushing attempts against the Eagles. That’s the fifth-most in the league.
When the Cardinals throw
Kyler Murray is only 19th in the league in passing (94.7), with a 67.0 completion percentage (14th) and a 7.0 yards-per-attempt average (22nd). His speed is going to put a major strain on the Eagles’ pass rush, as well as a secondary that will be missing two starters. A third — cornerback Darius Slay — has spent the week in concussion protocol. The Eagles need their pass rush, which has the second-most sacks in the league (43), to put heat on Murray. But he is even more Houdini-like than the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson when it comes to escaping a rush. The one difference is Murray keeps his eyes downfield a little longer than Jackson.
With Slay generally covering the other team’s top wideout, the Eagles have played a lot more man coverage this year than they have in the past under Schwartz. Because of the injuries to Rodney McLeod and Avante Maddox, they might have to change things up. Slay spent the last three weeks trying to cover the Seahawks’ DK Metcalf, the Packers’ Davante Adams, and the Saints’ Michael Thomas. It won’t get any easier Sunday if he is asked to travel with DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has 94 catches for 1,155 yards and five TDs. He had nine catches for 136 yards last weekend against the Giants.
The Cardinals’ other two wideouts in 11-personnel are Christian Kirk and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Kirk has six TD catches, but none in the last five games. He averaged just 7.5 yards per catch in those five games. The 37-year-old Fitzgerald has 45 catches but is averaging only 7.7 yards per catch and doesn’t have a TD reception yet.
Jake Elliott has made 13 of 18 field-goal attempts. His 72.2 FG percentage is the lowest of his career. He has missed three 50-plus-yard attempts but also missed a 29-yarder in Week 7 against the Giants and a 22-yarder against the Saints. He also missed two PATs in the last three games. Punter Cam Johnston is ninth in net average (42.5). He’s had an NFL-high 37 punts returned, but the Eagles have done a pretty good job of covering his punts. They are 10th in punt coverage (6.7). The Eagles allowed just two returns longer than 7 yards in the last four games.
Rookie Jalen Reagor had a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Packers two weeks ago, but special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp is picking his spots with him. Greg Ward isn’t nearly as explosive as Reagor, but he has surer hands and is a better decision-maker. Ward is 15th in punt-return average (6.8). His 15 fair catches are the sixth-most in the league.
Like the Eagles’ Elliott, Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez is having a down year. He has a 72.7 accuracy rate. Five of his six misses have been between 40 and 49 yards. Punter Andy Lee is in his 18th NFL season. He’s 24th in net average (38.7). That’s Lee’s lowest net average since 2005. He’s had 46.7% of his punts returned.
The Cardinals are 20th in punt coverage (9.4), so Fipp likely will try to give Reagor some opportunities. Kirk is the Cardinals’ punt returner. He’s averaging 6.6 yards on 20 returns. He’s not big on fair catches. He has only six of them.
A win would give the Cardinals a clean sweep of the NFC East. They outscored their first three NFC East victims, 94-32.
Cardinals 27, Eagles 23
Eagles OTs Jordan Mailata and Matt Pryor vs. Cardinals ER Haason Reddick: Riddick has 10 sacks, half of them coming Sunday vs. the Giants. The Temple product has lined up on the left side of the defense on 75% of his pass-rush opportunities this season. Pryor, who is replacing Driscoll, who was replacing Lane Johnson, and Mailata have given up nine sacks and 47 total QB pressures on 715 combined pass-block opportunities. ADVANTAGE: Cardinals
Eagles CB Darius Slay vs. Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins: Slay’s trip down Murderers’ Row continues. From Metcalf to Adams to Thomas to, now, Hopkins. Slay might end up wishing he stayed in concussion protocol a little longer. ADVANTAGE: Cardinals
Eagles WRs Greg Ward, Alshon Jeffery, and Jalen Reagor vs. Cardinals CBs Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Byron Murphy: Eagles wide receivers haven’t combined for 100-plus receiving yards in a game since Week 8. That’s hard to believe. ADVANTAGE: Cardinals
Keys to the game
Keep the takeaways coming. Schwartz likes to say turnovers come in bunches. The Eagles had two big ones against the Saints. They need more against Arizona. And they need to avoid turnovers. The Cardinals have 14 takeaways in their seven wins, but only four in their six losses.
Third-down improvement. The Eagles converted just 28.9% of their third-down opportunities in their last eight games. They managed to beat the Saints despite converting just 4 of 13 third downs. And 3 of those 4 conversions came on Hurts runs. Hurts completed just 2 of 6 passes on third down.
Disarming DeAndre. The Cardinals are 5-1 when Hopkins puts up 100 receiving yards. He has averaged 112.7 yards per game and 14.1 yards per catch in their seven wins and 61.0 yards per game and 9.6 yards per catch in their six losses.