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In the weak NFC East, the Eagles just have to be competent to be relevant | Mike Sielski

The Giants are 0-2 again. Washington's defense has struggled. The Cowboys are missing key guys. The Eagles can stay in the division race just by playing sound football.

The Eagles' defense dominated Atlanta last week, and in a weak NFC East, even a fraction of that performance can keep them atop the division.
The Eagles' defense dominated Atlanta last week, and in a weak NFC East, even a fraction of that performance can keep them atop the division.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It might sound strange at first to suggest, after a game in which the Eagles committed 14 penalties, that their competence and crisp play are reasons to think they can make some hay in the NFC East this season. But then, you might not have seen Joe Judge coach.

A Lansdale Catholic alumnus and the Giants’ head coach, Judge has spent much of his 18-game tenure in New York talking about how to play the right way and show respect to the game of football – and employing some uber-old-school coaching and disciplinary methods – without having many of those lectures and lessons seep into the minds of his players.

The Giants have lost two-thirds of their games under Judge, the most recent of which was Thursday night in Landover, Md., when Dexter Lawrence, one of the team’s defensive ends, jumped offside on a last-second field-goal attempt by Washington’s Dustin Hopkins. Hopkins missed the kick, but Lawrence’s penalty gave him another chance, from five yards closer, and Hopkins drilled that one. WFT 30, Giants 29.

Judge presumably had Lawrence run gassers in the FedEx Field parking lot into the wee hours of Friday morning, but such Bear Bryant-style punishment wouldn’t have changed the facts that the Giants are 0-2 for the fifth straight season and their two losses have come to two less-than-excellent teams with journeyman quarterbacks: the Broncos and Teddy Bridgewater, Washington and Taylor Heinicke.

Such is the significance of a single, poorly timed mistake, especially in a division as mediocre as the NFC East. And to watch that game’s final minutes – with Washington taking a late lead, burping it up after a Heinicke interception, then happily accepting Lawrence’s gift – was to remember some Eagles teams from a different era and consider how this team, even with a rookie head coach in Nick Sirianni, could and perhaps should stay in the division race all season.

First, the past. When the Eagles, early in Andy Reid’s tenure as their head coach, rose to the top of the NFC East, reaching the playoffs five straight seasons, from 2000 through 2004, and finishing first in the division four times in that span, they did so not merely because of Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, et al.

Take nothing away from the talent of those teams, but those Eagles also had the benefit of taking off at a time when the rest of the division tended to crash to the ground every year. Dave Campo, Steve Spurrier, Tom Coughlin before he softened and modernized his methods, Patrick Ramsey, Shane Matthews, Tony Banks, Quincy Carter, Randall Cunningham and Vinny Testaverde and Kurt Warner when they were aging, Eli Manning when he was green: The coaches and quarterbacks and teams they faced most frequently tended to offer little resistance and, when they did, could be counted on to foul up at moments most opportune for the Eagles.

» READ MORE: Jalen Hurts’ career is off to a historic start. Four comparisons tell the tale. | David Murphy

In turn, one of the Eagles’ greatest strengths then was their reliability. Generally speaking – and Reid’s play-calling and decision-making in a game’s or half’s closing minutes tended to be an exception – they were buttoned-up. McNabb rarely threw interceptions. The defense made few mistakes. The special teams were at worst solid and at best outstanding.

Sure, you could poke fun at Chad Lewis for his tendency to tumble to the turf immediately after making a catch. But on a crucial third-and-6, Lewis would get open and haul in a pass from McNabb for a 6-yards-and-three-quarters-of-an-inch completion, and the drive would continue.

Now, the present. Put the Eagles in the context of their division and what we’ve seen from them and their rivals so far. We’ve covered the Giants. Washington’s defense, which was the reason the team won the NFC East last season, has allowed more than 390 yards of offense in each of its first two games this season. The Cowboys, from quarterback Dak Prescott on down, probably have the most talented roster of the division’s four teams, but they’ve already lost four key players – wide receiver Michael Gallup, right tackle La’el Collins, and defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence – to injuries, COVID-19 protocols, and suspension.

Meanwhile, ahead of their game Sunday against the 49ers, the Eagles have quelled some of the concerns that Sirianni would be overwhelmed in his new job. They aren’t a deep team, but their starters have been relatively sharp, both in the preseason and in their Week 1 victory over the Falcons.

As one example, the Falcons were guilty of two needless offensive-pass-interference infractions on “rub routes,” when their receivers set picks on Eagles defensive backs. In contrast, Zach Ertz used a similar strategy to free DeVonta Smith to catch the game’s first touchdown, but Ertz did it without committing a penalty.

“That was a play that we repped multiple times this week and gave multiple different looks to that situation,” Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen told reporters Tuesday. “Ertz was a huge part of that play. He made it go. We got the look, and he did a nice job setting that up. … Well-executed play, and it was really the repetition throughout the week that we got in practice on it.”

Sometimes, that attention to detail is what separates a good team from a bad team. It should be enough to have the Eagles in the mix in this watered-down iteration of the NFC East, if they can keep it up.

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