Good morning. It’s the final day of 2018, and the Eagles will keep playing football to start 2019. An impressive final month culminated with a 24-0 win in Washington, and now the Eagles have set up a playoff date with Chicago on Sunday. Doug Pederson has a noon news conference today. The players return to work on Wednesday.
This is a Monday edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will continue coming to you each day as long as the Eagles are playing during the postseason. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The Eagles are not done … yet. That was Doug Pederson’s message to the team after they clinched a playoff berth on Sunday night, the result of a dominant performance over Washington and Chicago’s victory over Minnesota. (Interestingly, the Bears' win set up a playoff meeting with the Eagles.) But really, the result was about more than the Week 17 machinations. Rather, it’s the way this team has played for six consecutive weeks, rebounding from that embarrassing Nov. 18 loss in New Orleans with six inspired games, winning five of them to position themselves for the playoffs while other NFC teams sank down the standings.
After those wins, Pederson had the same cheer with his team: “We’re not done … yet!” That was his rallying cry during last year’s playoff run, too. And it’s premature to start thinking about repeating a Super Bowl run, but it’s not too early to say the team has recaptured the spirit that made last year’s run so special.
Let’s look at Sunday’s win before the big picture. Simply said, it was the most dominant performance I’ve seen by an Eagles defense since I started covering the team in 2012. (With that said, they were playing a depleted offense diminished by injuries at all levels.) There’s no way to overstate holding a team to zero points, 89 yards, and no third-down conversions. Fletcher Cox was the best player on the field, and the entire defensive line won the line of scrimmage. They made plays throughout the defense, from Rasul Douglas’ interception to Nigel Bradham’s two pass break-ups to Corey Graham making a key pass breakup as a deep safety.
And the offense deserves credit for the defense’s performance, too, considering they possessed the ball for more than 43 minutes. That kept the defense fresh. The defense took only 45 snaps – against Dallas earlier this month, they took 99 snaps. Think about that difference!
Nick Foles left the game early because of a ribs/chest injury, but not before he completed 25 consecutive passes. Foles was sore after the game, and though he has Monday tests, my guess is he’s ready to play Sunday. I don’t think he would have held his postgame news conference if it was a significant injury, or at least one significant enough to sideline him for the playoffs. Foles made high-percentage passes, which helped those completions, but he also continued to give his receivers chances to make plays on the ball. There was balance with the offense, the offensive line played well, and Pederson’s play-calling was on point. Third downs were critical. They went 8 of 14 on money downs. That was how they won on offense on a day without explosive plays. It was just an efficient afternoon.
So now the big picture. We’ll have time this week to look closer at the Bears in this space, but needless to say, it’s going to be a tough game. The Eagles are early underdogs, and Chicago’s defense is outstanding. The offense is creative and diverse. The Bears are at home, where they’re 7-1 this season. But make no mistake about it: The Eagles are a dangerous team right now. They’ve won five of six, a sign that they’re hot. They’re a tough, battle-tested team that’s won big games in January and has proven it can go on the road and win. (Remember Los Angeles just a few weeks ago?) They can win on the lines of scrimmage, which is often the difference this time of year. And I’d say they have the quarterback edge in this game, too.
“Nobody wanted us in, but guess what, they got to deal with us now,” Malcolm Jenkins told his teammates during the postgame speech. (Jeff McLane has more on the postgame scene.)
Minutes later, while speaking with reporters, Jenkins noted how the Eagles can throw out the regular season. They’re in, it’s like a new season. Sure, seeding matters because they have all road games and don’t have a first-round bye. But when they get to Soldier Field, it doesn’t matter that they coughed up leads to Tennessee and Carolina earlier this season, and were blown out by New Orleans last month. They redeemed themselves during these last six games, and there’s reason to be excited. Like Pederson said, they’re not done yet. And the Eagles will try to make sure they can say the same thing at this time next week.
I don’t see a situation in which Carson Wentz is active as the No. 2 quarterback. My guess is if Wentz is active during the postseason, he starts. Otherwise, they’ll go with Nick Foles-Nate Sudfeld. If Wentz is the No. 2 quarterback, it’s effectively benching him, and that’s the not the approach I see the Eagles taking. Rather, I see them focus on getting Wentz healthy. And if Foles suffers an injury that keeps him out for an extended period, perhaps they reevaluate what to do with Wentz. But as long as Foles is starting, I think Wentz is out and trying to get healthy.
Wendell Smallwood started against Washington, but I wouldn’t overstate who plays the first snap. Both Smallwood and Josh Adams are in this rotation with Darren Sproles. The Eagles are using a true committee. No running back played more than 38 percent of the snaps. I think the Eagles will go in that direction, with Sproles taking the most work. But Smallwood will be involved.