Good morning, Eagles fans. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. Thank you for reading Early Birds all season, and there's much more to come. The Eagles return home for the first time in nearly a month when they host the Oakland Raiders on Monday. There's a chance the Eagles could have the No. 1 seed clinched by then, although it's unlikely. (More below.)
A quick programming note: We will not have an Early Birds newsletter on Monday morning, but we'll be back as regularly scheduled on Tuesday. It's free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. 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.
— Zach Berman
Can Nick Foles continue avoiding INTs? How will the Eagles block Khalil Mack? Should you be worried about Marshawn Lynch?
Here's what I'll be watching when the Eagles host the Oakland Raiders on Monday…
No INTs, Nick: The four touchdowns were impressive in Nick Foles' starting debut, but it was similarly important that he didn't throw an interception. The Raiders are tied for last in the NFL in interceptions this season with four, and all have come in the past four games. They were the first team in NFL history to go through the first seven games of a season without one. A clean game from Foles on Monday will go a long way. The Eagles are a better team than the Raiders, and the way to lose this game will be turning the ball over.
Who stops Mack?: Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack is one of the NFL's elite defensive players, with at least one sack in the past five games. Mack usually lines up on the left side where he'd rush against Eagles Pro Bowl tackle Lane Johnson, but offensive coordinator Frank Reich noted how the Raiders have moved Mack around this season. Pay attention to whether Mack rushes from the other side, where he'd have a mismatch against left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The Eagles can shift protections to give Vaitai help.
No. 1 rush defense vs. "Beast Mode": The Eagles still have the No. 1 rush defense, limiting opponents to 71.5 rushing yards per game. However, they've allowed opposing offenses to top 100 rushing yards and 4 yards per carry in three of the past five games. Marshawn Lynch isn't putting up the same numbers as he did with Seattle a few years ago, but "Beast Mode" is still a tough runner — especially late in the season. He's rushed for 248 yards and 5.95 yards per carry during the past three weeks. It will be a challenge for the Eagles defense, but that's been its strength all season.
Secondary improvements: The Eagles allowed a season-high 434 passing yards last week to the Giants, and the Raiders have a better passing offense than New York. The secondary must play better against a receiving corps that includes Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, who the Raiders hope will play Monday. Quarterback Derek Carr has not been as productive this season as last season, but he's still one of the best quarterbacks the Eagles will face and can pick apart the Eagles defense if they didn't clean up last week's mistakes. The key for the Eagles will be their tackling — Cooper is adept at yards after the catch, and Crabtree is one of the most physical receivers in the NFL. Pay attention to the status of cornerback Jalen Mills, who missed Thursday's practice with an ankle injury.
Elsewhere in the NFL: This is something to watch before the game on Monday, but it's nonetheless relevant. If you're watching the NFL on Saturday and Sunday, there will be plenty of playoff implications. The Minnesota Vikings must beat the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers on Saturday to stay alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. If the Vikings lose, the Eagles would get the No. 1 seed even before playing the Raiders. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons play on Sunday in a matchup of two potential Round 2 opponents for the Eagles. The Falcons won the first meeting between the two teams. The Dallas Cowboys get Ezekiel Elliott back to host the Seattle Seahawks, and the loser of this game will be eliminated from playoff contention. If the Los Angeles Rams beat the Tennessee Titans (or if the Seahawks lose), they'd clinch the NFC West. The Carolina Panthers could clinch a postseason bid with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the Detroit Lions must beat the Cincinnati Bengals to stay alive in the playoff picture.
What you need to know about the Eagles
Ronald Darby didn't defend his performance on Sunday and apologized for his ensuing Twitter rant, Jeff McLane writes. Also, check out what McLane said about the Eagles' offseason roster decisions.
Nate Sudfeld is now the Eagles' No. 2 quarterback and he comes with an interesting backstory. Les Bowen explores Sudfeld's charitable background.
Nelson Agholor is having a breakout season, Paul Domowitch writes.
Will the Eagles watch football this weekend? David Murphy posed that question.
Patrick Robinson returned to practice after Sunday's concussion. Also, an update on the other injuries.
Bowen takes stock of where the Eagles stand entering the postseason.
If you missed Thursday's Early Birds, it looked at Nick Foles starting in Philadelphia for the first time since 2014.
3 Questions With | Offensive lineman Brandon Brooks
Zach Berman: You were finally recognized as a Pro Bowler. I know you thought you played a Pro Bowl-level last year, but as a player how are you different this season?
Brandon Brooks: "I know what's expected, I guess. When you come in as a new guy, a new system, you're trying to find your own, trying to jell with the guys, trying to understand what your position coach wants out of you, technique-wise. Going into Year 2, I was able to be comfortable with it, know what's expected and not to have think. Just react. I've been doing it enough now where I know what he expects and how to do it."
Zach Berman: You've seemed to embrace Philadelphia and keeping a presence in the city. Is that important to you?
Brandon Brooks: "When I was going through free agency, before I knew where I was going, it was like — if I go to a city with a real downtown … if it's an East Coast city where everything is right here and you can walk around — I definitely want to be a part of the city, of the fans. I heard about the fans before I came here, how passionate they were. And I'm a regular dude, man. I live downtown. I walk around all the time. I'm grabbing food, just walking around. It's not something like where I'm too big-time."
Zach Berman: What are your favorite places to eat?
Brandon Brooks: "So if I'm going for a steak — I mean, realistically, Del Frisco's, Barclay Prime. Steak-wise, they're similar. The difference is the sides you want. So I'd probably say Barclay Prime or Del Frisco's if I'm going to do that. If it's more of like a brunch or something, I'd usually go to Parc. Mexican food, El Vez, El Rey. But probably my favorite restaurant is Butcher Bar. That's good, top to bottom."
Note: Look for more from Brandon Brooks in the Sunday Inquirer and on Philly.com.
Elsewhere in the NFL
Where do things stand in the Giants' general manager search? [New York Post]
A former Washington offensive lineman lost 80 pounds. [Washington Post]
Ezekiel Elliott is back for the Cowboys. [Star-Telegram]
Raiders QB Derek Carr, who plays the Eagles on Monday, is not a disappointment to his teammates during an up-and-down year. [San Jose Mercury News]
Who are the biggest Pro Bowl snubs? [NFL.com]
From the mailbag
A few questions in this one …
I think Jay Ajayi is getting close — he took more than half of the offensive snaps last week, which was his most since arriving in Philadelphia. I guess to be the "featured back," you'd be looking at near 20 carries. I don't think he'll get there. The Eagles want to keep LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement involved. "I don't want to fix something or do something if it's not really broken right now," coach Doug Pederson said. "If a guy does get a hot hand, I try to maybe feature that guy a little bit more in each game. I still think we've got a great running back room. We got some talent there. Each one has a different skill set, and we want to make sure we use it all the best we can."
Covering Rob Gronkowski? You're already thinking about the Super Bowl? My guess is they'd use a lot of Malcolm Jenkins and double-team Gronk when necessary. But if the Eagles and Patriots get that far, I'd explore it much more then.
Good question on the quick passing game. The way to stop it is with tackling and third-down defense. The key is to tackle the receivers on quick passes and not fall for double moves. Force them to go on extended drives to try to beat you. And you need to win third downs, forcing incompletions or stopping receivers short of the sticks. Against a quick-passing game, third-down defense is critical.
With Carson Wentz recovering from a torn ACL, I don't think the Eagles can afford to move Nick Foles this offseason. It's not a given Wentz will be himself by Week 1, and even if he is, the Eagles need a proven backup quarterback. If someone offered you a Day 2 pick, you need to consider it. I don't think Foles goes for that type of pick, especially because he was on the open market the past two years. Short of that type of deal, I wouldn't look to trade him. He's one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. They should want that security given the early-season unknown of Wentz.
We'll have a lot of time to discuss the offseason during the offseason, but to answer your question, I don't think the Eagles will make drastic changes to the roster. Tight end will look different behind Zach Ertz because the Eagles might need to replace Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Look for the Eagles to use a draft pick on a tight end. I can see the defensive line undergoing some changes, because Chris Long and Beau Allen could be elsewhere next season. That opens two rotation spots. But the Eagles have some internal candidates who could take those spots. Linebacker has some offseason questions. But I think the biggest change could come on the coaching staff. With success comes opportunities for assistants, and the Eagles might need to replace a few.