Early Birds: Eagles-Cardinals predictions
1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: If Sam Bradford can continue upon his improved play, and if the Eagles can continue to limit turnovers, Chip Kelly's offense can function effectively enough to score points. Can it be the high-motored machine it once was? Not likely. The Eagles' limitations on the line and at receiver can't be fixed with three games left in the season. But they have enough manpower to get the job done.
Cutting into DeMarco Murray's playing time in favor of Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles was the right move. The run game hasn't exactly been explosive since the change, but it has been effective enough. The Cardinals have been stout against the run. The starting defensive line - made up of Calais Campbell, Rodney Gunter and Frostee Rucker - may be the best run stopping 3-man front in the NFL. Inside linebacker Deone Bucannon, a converted safety, leads the team in tackles. Free safety Tyrann Mathieu has been all over the field. He can cover, tackle and blitz.
The Cards can be thrown against, however. Their pass rush has been just OK. Dwight Freeney leads the team in sacks (four), but he is dominant no more. That has meant more blitzing. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher has dialed up more blitzes than even his predecessor Todd Bowles. But sending extra rushers can tax the Cards' secondary. Cornerback Patrick Peterson has rebounded from last year, but Jerraud Powers and nickel corner Justin Bethel can be exploited. Bradford has been much better under pressure, largely because of improved footwork. He needs to get the ball to tight end Zach Ertz.
Zach Berman: Bradford's return has been a key part of these past two wins, and what stood out most to me is how clean he's playing. There was not an errant pass last Sunday - even the interception snatched out of Brent Celek's hands. Bradford must continue taking care of the ball, but the Cardinals secondary presents a tough challenge. I don't see the Eagles' receivers having a big game. Nelson Agholor will draw Peterson, and Jordan Matthews could be covered by Mathieu. Ertz might be the top target again.
The Eagles need to be able to run on Sunday. In Arizona's two losses this season, the winners had strong running games. St. Louis amassed 164 yards (146 from Todd Gurley) in Week 4, and the Steelers rushed for 141 yards in Week 6. The Cardinals keep opponents to 87.7 rushing yards per game, so those were outliers. I'd expect a similar split to last week - Mathews, Murray, and Sproles will all get carries - and the Eagles need to get into manageable third downs. Arizona is holding opponents to 33.7 percent on third downs. The key to the Eagles tempo is that first first down. It won't be easy - I don't see this as a big offensive game for the Eagles.
2. How will the defense do?
McLane: Running back David Johnson has been solid since taking over for the injured Chris Johnson. He's been the workhorse with Andre Ellington also out over the last two games with a toe injury. But make no mistake, the Cards' passing game sets up the run. Carson Palmer is very good at checking into run plays when necessary. Defenses have been forced to play a lot of two-deep because of Palmer's long ball accuracy. John Brown (16.3 per catch average) and Michael Floyd (16.3) can blow the top off at any moment.
Eagles cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe have been battling ankle injuries, but should be ready to go Sunday. Brown and Floyd will challenge them. The Hall of Fame-bound Larry Fitzgerald (96 catches for 1,088 yards) has done most of his work from the slot. Malcolm Jenkins will be charged with covering him. Palmer has had time to throw for most of the season.
The Eagles need to get pressure without sending extra rushers. Fletcher Cox, of course, will be key. He has been a one-man wrecking crew. But Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry need to get Palmer off his mark, too. Jared Veldeer and Mike Iupati - both free agent additions the last two years - have done a stellar job protecting Palmer's blind side.
Berman: If the Eagles don't get pressure on Palmer, this will be a long day. The Cardinals' receiving corps is that talented. This is the best trio the Eagles will see all season. Fitzgerald is having one of the best seasons of his career, although I think Jenkins will be one of the tougher slot defenders Fitzgerald faces. The matchup that should concern the Eagles is Brown's speed and Floyd's ability to catch jump balls. The Eagles cannot afford to allow the X-plays. That haunted the defense in the matchup last season, and defensive coordinator Bill Davis said the Cardinals will take 6-8 shots per game.
The Cardinals' offensive line has allowed only 21 sacks this season, so it will be a challenge for the Eagles to get pressure. I'd expect Curry to play often on Sunday. As for the Cardinals' rushing offense, Johnson can get yards in chunks. He's topped 4.5 yards per carry during the past two games. But I still think it comes down to the Eagles pass defense, which thrived with a challenge in New England. The Cardinals have better receivers, though, and I think that will be the difference.
3. Who's a player to watch?
McLane: Mathews returned last week after missing the previous three games with a concussion and received the bulk of carries, if not snaps. The Bills contained him. He averaged only 2.6 yards on 13 rushes. But, overall, he's been the Eagles' best runner on the ground this season. He may have been rusty last week. A big game from Mathews - and, really, all three running backs - will be needed if the Eagles want to hang with the Cardinals. It can be done.
Berman: I'm going with Jenkins. One of the main differences with the Eagles defense during the past two games has been playing Jenkins in the slot. That's where he's best, but the matchup with Fitzgerald is as tough as Jenkins will have all season. For football fans, it will be a treat to watch. With Jenkins in the slot, the Eagles need Ed Reynolds to hold his own at safety. The Cardinals will test the Eagles over the top, and if Reynolds makes a mistake, it will result in points.
4. What's your prediction?
McLane: I've done a horrible job of picking games this season. I just can't get a read on the team from week to week. Inconsistent teams will do that. The Cardinals may be the best squad the Eagles will face this season, at least at the time. The Panthers have the best record, but didn't start playing their best football until the last month. The Patriots were banged up. The Cardinals are solid in nearly every respect. They've had a few squeakers of late, but have consistently pulled out close games. I think they prevail in a game that could be closer than many expect.
Cardinals 30, Eagles 27.
Berman: I'm 7-6 in picking games this season, so I understand what you mean about not having a read on this team. Who does? I give the Eagles a lot of credit for winning consecutive games, and I picked against them both times. But I'm going to pick against them again. This is more of a pick for the Cardinals than against the Eagles, though. Arizona might be the most talented the Eagles will face this season. They're as a complete of a team as there is in the NFL. These two teams have played highly competitive games the past two seasons, and I'd expect another competitive game Sunday. But the Cardinals offense will be too much to handle, and the Eagles offense won't have enough firepower.
Give me Cardinals 28, Eagles 20, and the NFC East comes down to the last two weeks.