Eagles-Giants predictions from The Inquirer's beat reporters:
Since almost no one cares about this game, who's your Eagles MVP for 2014?
Jeff McLane: I'm going with Fletcher Cox. On Wednesday, Chip Kelly said, "He may be our most valuable player overall" after the defensive end was snubbed a spot on the Pro Bowl roster. I'm going one step further and definitively say that he was. I don't think the Eagles defense would have played anywhere near its level – especially for the first three-fourths of the season – without Cox. The 2012 top draft pick took a quantum leap in his second year in a new system. His statistics may not have been eye-popping (65 tackles, four sacks, 13 hurries, one forced fumble), but he played a major role in the Eagles' top-ranked run defense and a significantly improved pass rush. Cox should get a contract extension this offseason.
My runner-up is Jeremy Maclin. The receiver put up impressive numbers (82 catches for 1,269 yards and ten touchdowns) and managed to play all 16 games, but what impressed most was the clutch catches he made late in games. Maclin is set to become a free agent in March, but the feeling here is that the Eagles will re-sign him before it gets that far. My No. 3 MVP would be left tackle Jason Peters. He may not have played at his 2011 and 2013 levels, but Peters did his best to hold the offensive line together despite a mass of injuries.
Zach Berman: I can't argue with Cox or Maclin. But give me Peters. I'll mention him for two reasons: He plays a premium position in which the Eagles lack sufficient depth, and the other four offensive line spots all had injuries this year. Peters simply playing every game is valuable enough. Add in his performance at a high level, and it's clear we're watching one of the best left tackles of this generation each week.
The other player I'll mention is Connor Barwin. The sack numbers earned him a Pro Bowl bid, but he's someone you appreciate each time you watch him. He does so much for the defense, he fills so many roles, and he doesn't take many plays off. He took the third most snaps this season of any 3-4 outside linebacker. So Cox and Maclin deserve the praise you gave them, and I'll add Peters and Barwin to the mix.
What decision (or non-decision) by Kelly came back to haunt him most this season?
McLane: I think the decision to not upgrade at cornerback this offseason was ultimately the No. 1 factor in the Eagles not making the playoffs in Kelly's second season. Cary Williams is an OK cornerback, especially when you compare him to the other No. 2 corners around the league. But he was the best the Eagles had to offer on the outside and quarterback after quarterback went away from him and at Bradley Fletcher on the other side. And Fletcher wasn't consistent enough to handle the load, especially down the stretch against top-flight receivers. Fletcher had only one year left on a low-salary contract entering this year. The Eagles could have easily invested in the position through free agency. There were veteran options (Darrelle Revis, Aquib Talib, Antonio Cromartie) and there were options in the first round of the draft (Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby). Kelly and Howie Roseman can talk about scheme and culture fit all they like, but talent has to be the No. 1 deciding factor in player acquisition.
Berman: I go back to the draft. I wholeheartedly agree that you cannot make a full evaluation of the draft after one season, so I'm not calling anyone a bust. But those three days in May offered a chance to upgrade the roster and the depth, and the Eagles did not get enough out of it.
Marcus Smith struggled to get on the field on defense or special teams, and there was an opportunity cost associated with that pick. You mentioned the cornerbacks they could have selected. There were safeties, too. I give them credit for the Jordan Matthews selection, and Beau Allen provided more value than most seventh-round picks. But I expected more from Josh Huff this season, I was surprised that Jaylen Watkins could not get on the field, and they did not get a single game played from either of their fifth-round picks. Maybe these players develop into starters down the line, but they passed on some early contributors.
I should write about the DeSean Jackson decision here, too, so we have it covered in this section. I wouldn't say the decision came back to haunt Kelly, because I don't think Jackson's absence is the reason they didn't make the playoffs. But it was the most notable decision that Kelly made, and when you look at the decline of big plays, it's reasonable to wonder how Jackson could have helped. Jackson had as many 40+ catches as the entire Eagles roster this season. There were obviously other factors at play in that decision, and Kelly has stood by it. I think the Eagles were fine without him, but they would have been better with him.
Who is your dud for the Eagles for the season?
McLane: Fletcher gets the nod, but I mentioned him above, so I'll go with the second guy on my list: Nick Foles. Quarterbacks get too much blame and too much credit, but Foles' regression from last season hurt the Eagles, particularly in first-half losses to the 49ers and Cardinals. The team went 6-2 with him as the starter, but his injury forced Mark Sanchez to start and it was only a matter of time before the backup fell to his median level. Foles has now missed ten games because injury over the last three years.
Berman: My duds are Smith and Riley Cooper. I mentioned Smith above. I thought they could find some role for him, and developmentally, they still don't know what they will do with him going forward. That's a problem.
As for Cooper, he has 53 catches for 530 yards and three touchdowns. Those aren't bad numbers, and he caught a clutch touchdown last week. But considering his playing time and the way he played last season, those numbers could be better. I understand he does other things to help the offense, especially his blocking. That should be taken into account. Still, he needs to make a more dent in the passing game. His contract and his role in the offense should require more production.
What's your prediction?
McLane: Zach, we both got off to the strong start this season, picking 10 of the first 11 games correctly. But like the Eagles, we collapsed down the stretch and enter the final prediction with 11-4 records. I was OK with Kelly opting to play Sanchez and all his starters, but he has more to lose in that choice. If the Eagles fall in New York, Kelly and his first team will finish with a four-game losing streak. That's not the way you want to head into the offseason. If he had started Matt Barkley and played some of the younger players instead, a loss would have likely been expected. But I still think Kelly has the locker room and will get his players to perform. Will that be enough to beat a rejuvenated Giants team with one of the best rookies in receiver Odell Beckham? I don't know for certain. But I'm picking the Eagles 30, Giants 27.
As for our predictions for the season, we both have a shot to land on the money. I had the Eagles finishing 10-6; you had them going 9-7. As disappointing as this December has been for the Eagles and their fans, the team ended being what we thought they were in terms of wins and losses. I don't think either of us saw it happening this way. I think we both thought they would reach the playoffs. But the Eagles definitely took a step back in Kelly's second season. In three days he heads into what will probably be the most important offseason of his tenure.