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Early Birds: Eagles-Patriots predictions

Eagles-Patriots predictions

1. How will the Eagles offense do?

Jeff McLane: The Patriots play sound defense with a cast of mostly workmanlike players. There are a few elite talents. Safety Devin McCourty is as good as they get in centerfield. The Eagles tried to sign him last offseason. Chandler Jones is a well-rounded defensive end. He leads the team with 10-1/2 sacks. Strong-side linebacker Jamie Collins and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower are above-average second level defenders, but both could be questionable for Sunday. Collins has missed the last four games with an unspecified illness and Hightower suffered a sprained MCL in the loss to Denver on Sunday. The Broncos had greater success on the ground after Hightower left. The Pats are deep up front. Jabaal Sheard and Dominique Easley don't start, but have been extremely effective in part-time roles. Jason Peters looks likely for Sunday. The Eagles will obviously need him to fend off Jones. Sheard and Rob Ninkovich rush primarily from the left and will see plenty of Lane JohnsonSam Bradford is going to need time. New England's secondary has done a good job, coupled with the rush, of minimizing damage through the air. Cornerbacks Logan Ryan (four interceptions) and Malcolm Butler probably don't have much to worry about with the Eagles' outside receivers. The Patriots rotate their corners and safeties into the slot, and while safety Patrick Chung has played well there this season, I think Jordan Matthews has the advantage.

Zach Berman: The Patriots' defense does not receive enough credit. They're fifth in the NFL in scoring defense (19.3 points), and are especially tough against the run. The status of Collins and Hightower will be key developments, though. The run defense would suffer without them. That's why DeMarco Murray will be such a key piece of the game on Sunday. Murray has only one 100-yard game this season and has not neared the production expected of him this season. He needs to get the Eagles in more manageable third downs, because the tempo only works if the Eagles are moving the sticks. With Bradford expected to return, I think the passing game functions better than the past two weeks. He played well before his injury. It also helps to have Zach Ertz back. The player I'll be watching on Sunday is Nelson Agholor. He'll probably have Butler on him, and Butler has played at a high level in recent weeks. When is Agholor going to get going? It's already December, and he has had little impact. This is a tough matchup, but the Eagles need something from their outside receivers – and it's not coming from the left side. I don't see a big day from the Eagles' offense, but if they can run effectively, they'll have a better outing than the past two games.

2. How will the defense do?

McLane: The Eagles are facing a banged up Pats offense. What matters most, of course, is that Tom Brady is healthy. But he will likely be without tight end Rob Gronkowski (57 catches for 931 yards and nine touchdowns). Receiver Julian Edelman is also out. Danny Amendola is questionable. That doesn't leave Brady much. His patchwork offensive line hasn't done a consistent job of protecting him either. And yet, he's still been the best quarterback in the NFL this season. The Pats run game hasn't been the same since Dion Lewis suffered a season-ending injury. LeGarrette Blount is a tough in-between-the-tackles runner, though. Brady is likely to go right at rookie corner Eric Rowe (slants, anyone?), who will be making his first start in place of the injured Nolan CarrollBrandon LaFell isn't in Calvin Johnson's class, though, and the lanky Rowe could match favorably against the 6-foot-2 receiver. Brady is also likely to attack the Eagles' inside linebackers through the air. Mychal Kendricks has been susceptible when isolated. DeMeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso can also be exploited.

Berman:  I liked Chip Kelly's response when asked how the Patriots compensate for the loss of so many key players. The Eagles coach replied,  "Did they lose Brady?" That's the key. He's that good, that important, and will be that impactful on the game. I know the weapons aren't as deep as most weeks, and the offensive line is patchwork. But it's still Brady. On Sunday, I'll be watching the running backs catching the ball out of the backfield. The Patriots have completed 21.8 percent of their passes to running backs this season. They don't have Dion Lewis anymore, but James White and Brandon Bolden are still threats. And the Eagles have struggled stopping running backs out of the backfield – look what Theo Riddick did last week. The other player I'll point out is Scott Chandler. With Gronkowski not expected to play, Chandler could be a big part of the offense. At 6-foot-7, the veteran is a big target. The Eagles haven't been burned by tight ends this season, but Brady knows how to find them. The Patriots have been held below 30 points the past four games, so this isn't the Patriots offense from September. But it's not the Eagles defense from September, either. I expect a big game from Brady – even without his top weapons.

3. Who's a player to watch?

McLane: Bradford is expected to get his first start in three games. Mark Sanchez wasn't the problem in the Eagles' last two losses, but he clearly performed at a level below Bradford, who had been steady over the previous three games. I'd like to see Chip Kelly move Bradford out of the pocket on designed bootlegs and play-action. The Eagles, of course, have to generate some success on the ground to sell the run action. I think it's possible. The Patriots can be gashed on the ground, and losing Hightower will hurt. The Eagles will also be without a key piece. Ryan Mathews (concussion) still hasn't gone through the protocol.

Berman: I'll have a close eye on Murray. I've been harping on the offense's problems even when the defense has allowed 90 points during the past two weeks, and it's because the three-and-outs are such a problem. It takes away the tempo and puts the defense on the field with little chance to breath. The Eagles have never won a game under Kelly when they failed to score 24 points, and I don't see that changing this week. So the offense must help, and it can only happen if they put drives together. They'll need to get in third-and-manageable situations, and the key is for Murray to be effective on first and second downs.

4. What's your prediction?

McLane: The Eagles were shell shocked following the Bucs loss. They said the short turnaround would benefit them, but it ended up being the opposite. That was a dead team walking into Detroit. I think the mini-bye this week should help in terms of preparation. I could see Kelly drawing up a few wrinkles to get the offense moving. That being said, the Patriots are better then the Eagles in every phase, even with the injuries. They have great special teams cover units, a good punt return man in Amendola and possibly the best kicker in the NFL in Stephen GostkowskiPatriots 30, Eagles 19.​

Berman: The reason the Eagles needed to capitalize on that November stretch of games was because of what awaited them in December. The Patriots have the advantage in every phase this week, and they have the home field. I think the Eagles will be more competitive than the past two weeks, but I don't think they're good enough to win in New England. Maybe they'll prove me wrong and salvage their season with a victory, but I see the Eagles falling to 4-8. Give me Patriots 27, Eagles 21.