Early Birds: Eagles-Bills predictions
The Bills are No. 14 in rush defense, with opponents rushing for 104 yards per game.
1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: The return of Sam Bradford cannot be overstated. While he was a turnover machine in the first six games with 10, he had a much steadier hand in the three games before he suffered concussion and shoulder injuries. Juxtaposed with Mark Sanchez, who had five turnovers in less than 2-1/2 games of relief, the impact has been obvious.
Bradford didn't give the ball away in the win over the Patriots and he's now gone 14 quarters without a turnover. If he can continue to avoid interceptions and make big throws on third down and in the red zone, the offense may be able to survive despite deficiencies on the offensive line and at receiver.
Rex Ryan is one of the best at rattling quarterbacks. The Bills coach is a master of the blitz and knowing when to dial them up. He might not have the horses up front that he had with the Jets - except for perhaps defensive end Jerry Hughes - but Ryan has a comparable secondary. Stephen Gilmore (Leodis McKelvin is expected to start in place of the injury Gilmore on Sunday) and rookie Ronald Darby aren't Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but there are skilled enough to be left in man-to-man situations, especially against the Eagles' crop of outside receivers.
The Bills are susceptible in the middle of the field if Ryans' rushers can't get home. The Eagles could have matchup advantages in the slot (Jordan Matthews vs. nickel cornerback Nickell "Yes, that's really his name" Robey) and at tight end (Zach Ertz vs. safety Bacarri Rambo),
Zach Berman: I'm fascinated by what will happen with the Eagles' running game. Who will get the majority of the carries - DeMarco Murray? Ryan Mathews? Darren Sproles? I think the Eagles could try to get Murray going on Sunday and get him 10-15 carries. But the Eagles need to get the running game going to get in more manageable third downs. That's what happened last week.
The Bills are No. 14 in rush defense, with opponents rushing for 104 yards per game. They're worse at pass defense, with the 256 passing yards allowed per game ranking No. 24. Gilmore is a big loss, so that could be an advantage for the Eagles. Then again, it's not as if the Eagles' outside receivers are a threat. I point to the Matthews matchup seemingly each week, but he does have a considerable size advantage over Robey. Plus, Bradford trusts him.
But the key will be the Eagles' offensive line. The Bills have only 18 sacks this season, which is a major surprise. They had a league-high 54 sacks last season. But they still have Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, and Marcell Dareus. It's an imposing front, and it will be a challenge for the Eagles.
2. How will the defense do?
McLane: Bill Davis' unit reversed its play after a disturbing two-game stretch in which they surrendered nearly 1,000 yards of offense and nearly 90 points (if you adjust for a Sanchez pick six). The Eagles pressured Tom Brady often last Sunday and blanketed his receivers by dropping six, seven and sometimes eight into the secondary.
Tyrod Taylor is a different quarterback with different weapons. The book on Taylor says you should send extra rushers. He may scramble out of trouble, but having a spy (Connor Barwin?) could limit the damage. Taylor throws a decent deep ball and has a great deep target in Sammy Watkins (18.7 yards per catch). He likes to go to tight end Charles Clay on quick hitters and to LeSean McCoy underneath. But he struggles with intermediate throws.
Taylor won't likely have success unless the Bills' ground game gets rolling, though. Slowing McCoy, of course, will be a challenge. He averaged 97.6 yards over the last five games. If he can get past the Eagles' two-gappers, namely Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan (if he plays), McCoy could be dangerous against second-level linebackers like Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso and DeMeco Ryans.
Berman: McCoy will have a big game. They'll feed him often, he'll be motivated, and he's been hot as of late. McCoy has topped 100 yards in three of the past five games. Look for him to make it four of six. The Eagles will likely play more base defense, so Ryans could get more playing time on Sunday.
But the player who should really concern the Eagles is Watkins. He has three touchdowns in the past two games. He'll be a major challenge for Byron Maxwell. If McCoy is running well, the play-action becomes a threat. Cox dominated the line of scrimmage last week. He'll have a tougher matchup on Sunday against Richie Incognito. The Eagles need to get pressure from the edges, and it was a positive sign that both Barwin and Brandon Graham had two sacks last week.
3. Who's a player to watch?
McLane: All eyes will be on McCoy, but they'll also be wandering to the other sideline to see what DeMarco Murray is doing. Chip Kelly hasn't said Murray will return to being the primary ball carrier after he played just 14 snaps last week, but it's unlikely the Eagles coach will bury the tailback. It will be interesting to see how Kelly and Duce Staley divvy up the snaps with Ryan Mathews likely to be back in uniform. Will Kenjon Barner even dress?
Berman: Other than Murray, I'm curious to watch Kiko Alonso. The player the Eagles acquired in exchange for LeSean McCoy played 70 snaps last week. The Eagles coaches said that was too many. With more base defense on Sunday, I'm curious what his snap total will be. Alonso is playing against his former team, but he has yet to look like the player he was with the Bills. Sunday would be an opportune for him to play at that level.
4. What's your prediction?
McLane: McCoy has averaged 18.6 carries a game since returning from a hamstring injury. It's not far below what he averaged in two seasons with Kelly (19.6), but he's yet to have the 25-30 carry games he's had in past late-season situations. He could get that amount on Sunday, especially if complement running back Karlos Williams sits another game. McCoy will be hyped, but having too much emotion could backfire on him.
Taylor could help keep some of the heat off McCoy with the occasional zone read run. Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman can call a diverse run game. Davis will need his run defenders to stay sound. A Cox-Richie Incognito matchup will be one to watch up front. Watkins vs. Byron Maxwell in the secondary is another. I've given up thinking that I have the pulse of this team week-in, week-out.
The Eagles seemed loose last week. They have the appearance of a confident team this week. I think the teams are evenly matched, so I'm picking a close score. But don't be surprised if the Eagles deliver another dud.
Bills 27, Eagles 24.
Berman: I don't think either team has a clear advantage here. The point spread reflects how tough this game is to predict. The Eagles impressed last week, but it brings up similar thoughts to last season - it's hard to survive on non-offensive touchdowns. Bradford has shown signs of improvement, and he needs to continue to take care of the football. The Eagles are 5-2 in the last seven games Bradford finished. That should be an encouraging sign.
I could talk myself into either side here - that's now even this game appears. But the Eagles still need to prove they can play well on a consistent basis.
I'll take Bills 24, Eagles 23, but the Eagles remain in contention in the NFC East.