The NFL playoffs aren’t the NCAA basketball tournaments. Teams don’t improve their postseason position by getting hot at the end of the season.
If they did, the Eagles could argue for a top-four seed. Maybe even a No. 3, or a No. 2. They’re like Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Nobody would want to play them.
Yes, they’re 8-7, and yes, they need the Bears to beat the Vikings on Sunday to have a chance, but it’s difficult to overstate how well the Birds have played since New Orleans humiliated them five games ago. The Eagles have won four of those five games, including their last two, last Sunday at the Rams and Sunday against the Texans, both playoff teams.
Right now -- at this moment -- besides the Saints, who’s better than the Eagles? Besides the Saints, what team would any of the other five playoff teams least prefer to play?
The Bears? Perhaps, but probably not. They limited the Rams to six points when they beat them in Chicago three games ago, and they’ve won nine of 10. But that loss was four games ago, on the road to the Giants, whom the Eagles beat twice, and the Bears haven’t scored more than 27 points in a month and a half.
The Seahawks? They beat the Chiefs on Sunday and the Vikings two week before, but they’ve lost twice to the Rams and lost to the 49ers two weeks ago.
Who else? The Vikings? Yes, they beat the Eagles at Philly in the fifth game, but they’re 3-3 in their last six games, fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo two games ago, and haven’t beaten a playoff team all season. Would you bet on them against the Bears this Sunday?
For whatever it’s worth, the Eagles have proven themselves worthy of a playoff spot. Even if they don’t make it.
“We’re good. We’ve just got to keep pushing,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the team’s best player. “We’re playing for one another. When you’ve got a group of guys playing for one another, and loving each other, it’s hard to beat.”
For whatever reason, this team plays best when the players are forced to cleave to each other. They need the elements of compassion and desperation to find their better selves.
“The identity of this football team, and you talk about a Philly-type team, this is who we are right now. There’s not a lot of finesse about it," said head coach Doug Pederson. "We try to line up and try to be the more dominant, physical team, and that’s what you’re seeing.”
“We think we can beat anybody right now,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Well, maybe not anybody. The Saints beat them by 41 points six weeks ago. Any rematch isn’t likely to repeat that sort of massacre, but they’re the No. 1 seed for a reason. At least that embarrassment inspired the Eagles to play better in the five games since:
The only loss: at Dallas, in overtime, after the Eagles were robbed of a turnover to start the game.
The biggest moment: Foles took Jadeveon’s Clowney’s helmet in his sternum, was knocked from the game for one play, then returned to lead the game-winning drive. If the Eagles make the playoffs, that will be the Philly Special, 2018 edition.
The turning point: “Probably the second half of that Giants game,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “We realized that, if we want to do anything in this league this year, we’ve got to just settle down and do our jobs. All 11 men. Coaches, just give us something we can execute and play fast.” With the Eagles trailing by eight, the offensive line begged Pederson to run the ball. Jenkins suggested to coordinator Jim Schwartz that make the defensive scheme simpler for the cast of young defensive backs. Whether the quarterback was Foles or Wentz, and no matter who the defensive backs have been, Pederson and Schwartz have generally adhered to those adjustments since.
The inspired play has manifested itself in some unexpected areas.
Second-year cornerback Rasul Douglas, once an indifferent tackler, has led the team in tackling in three of the last four games. In that span he has 41 of his 53 tackles for the season, 36 of them solos. Right tackle Lane Johnson logged four of his best pass-blocking games, according to profootballfocus.com, as he tried (and failed) to make a push for the Pro Bowl. Jason Kelce, the team’s nerve center, has been playing like a man possessed.
And, of course, Foles generated two 400-yard passing games, which included the team record, 471 yards, set Sunday.
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But this is more than just the undeniable magic of St. Nick. With Wentz, they won twice and tied Dallas. They’re not perfect, but they’re clicking.
“I do think," Pederson said, “that collectively -- offense, defense and special teams -- I think we are playing our best football at this time.”
It might be too little. It might be too late.
But it is, at least, worth noting.