JOE WEBB hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2011, Eagles fans might be relieved to know. The Minnesota Vikings, who host the Birds on Sunday, employ Webb strictly as a wide receiver these days, and not all that frequently - he has five catches for 33 yards this season.
Three years ago, Webb and the Vikings taught the Eagles a painful lesson about taking things for granted, about keeping a sharp emotional edge. You probably remember the setup: The Eagles and Vikings were supposed to play Sunday night, Dec. 26 at Lincoln Financial Field. A major snowstorm was bearing down on the area. City and team officials decided to postpone the game, concerned about getting fans safely to and from the stadium. (Seemed to work out OK last weekend, didn't it?) The contest was rescheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 28, ostensibly to give workers plenty of time to clear parking lots and roads, but probably more to not compete with "Monday Night Football'' on the 27th.
By the time the Eagles finally took the field, they had clinched a playoff berth and the NFC East title. They were still in contention for a first-round bye, but that clearly wasn't a big consideration to them. They came out flat and sloppy, and lost, 24-14, after entering the evening double-digit favorites, a 10-4 team playing a 5-9 team that was starting Webb, an unheralded rookie quarterback, from Alabama-Birmingham.
The Eagles did not win again after that night, resting starters in a meaningless loss to Dallas, then falling to Green Bay in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"All I remember is Joe Webb," LeSean McCoy said yesterday. McCoy gained just 44 yards on 13 carries that night.
"That was definitely a game we should have won . . . especially having a rookie quarterback in there, Joe Webb, I think we took them for granted and didn't put our best foot forward," Kurt Coleman said. Coleman also was a rookie that year, starting at safety. He said this week, taking the Vikings for granted "hasn't come up at all . . . this is a totally different mindset. We want to go out there and put our best game out there to date. We have a lot of things we're trying to build for . . . We're in a fight for this division, and we can't slip up. Not one bit."
Certainly, there will be no playoff berth- or division-clinching before the Eagles take the field in Minneapolis. The 8-5 Eagles are again favored, by a more modest 4.5 points , over a 3-9-1 Vikings team that has lost four times by four points or less. There is some question about whether star running back Adrian Peterson (foot) will play, but the Eagles, even after five wins in a row, aren't in a position to take anyone lightly.
"You turn the tape on," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said yesterday to anyone who might scoff at his ritual pregame fluffery of a rival. Kelly referenced the Vikings' 29-26 loss at Baltimore last Sunday, which happened on a Joe Flacco touchdown pass with 4 seconds left. "I don't think of overlooking opponents. I turn the tape on, see how hard they play."
Michael Vick lost two fumbles and threw an interception in that 2010 game, after suffering a thigh bruise on the Birds' first snap. He finished the night 25-for-43 for 263 yards, a TD, and a 74.1 passer rating. Webb was 17-for-26, 193, no touchdowns, no picks, 87.8. Peterson, given 2 extra days for minor injuries to heal that had caused him to be listed as questionable going in, gained 118 yards on 22 carries for what was then the NFL's 30th-ranked scoring offense.
"Postponing the game until Tuesday, that wasn't ideal," Vick said yesterday. "It was kind of rough. It was cold. I was getting hit a little bit." [Vick was sacked six times.] "I can say that was one game where I learned a lot about protections, and how to pick up blitzes."
A narrative emerged that Minnesota showed the rest of the league how to handle Vick, bringing blitzes late, after protections were set, taking advantage of his tendency to hold onto the ball.
"We were in control of our destiny. I thought we could have gone a bit further [in the playoffs], but you know what, it didn't happen . . . we just didn't finish," Vick said.
"We got whupped. It was not a good memory," tight end Brent Celek said yesterday. Celek caught 10 passes for 97 yards, on a night when Vick targeted DeSean Jackson 12 times but managed to complete only two passes to him, for 32 yards.
"They were just bringing a slot blitz on us and taking care of everything with that slot blitz," Celek said. "They were working us pretty good."
Some Eagles said afterward that the Vikings hadn't shown much blitzing on tape, and the Birds weren't really prepared. Effective in-game adjustments, for whatever reason, didn't happen.
This year's Vikings also haven't blitzed a lot, right guard Todd Herremans said yesterday. "They feel like they can create pressure with just their front, but you gotta go into the game being ready for everything, so we're breaking down film and studying every single blitz that they've thrown."
Matt Cassel is scheduled to start at quarterback for the Vikings, though Christian Ponder has recovered from a concussion that sidelined him for a win over Chicago and the Baltimore loss. Cassel, 31, is 94-for-159 this season for 1,122 yards (59.1 percent), seven touchdowns, four interceptions and an 84.9 passer rating. He played pretty well against the Bears and the Ravens.
Kelly said Cassel and Ponder "have a little bit different skill set," but that the offense doesn't change dramatically when Minnesota changes QBs, as is the case with most teams. That offense ranks 14th in the NFL, a decent ranking for a 3-9-1 team. But the defense ranks 31st, both in yardage and points allowed.
Against this defense, specifically this secondary, indoors, with no snow, I'm going to take Nick Foles and the Eagles.
Do I have concerns? Sure. Chief among them is, the longer a streak goes, either way, the closer it is to being over, and the Eagles, who are not the most talented team in the NFL, or even among the top echelon of talented teams, have won five games in a row. The last 2 weeks, especially, some key calls have gone their way. I don't think Earl Wolff is ready to play yet, and Cary Williams suddenly showed up on the injury report yesterday with a hamstring. Could Matt Cassel pull a Joe Webb on Sunday? Sure.
I don't get any flashing red warning lights from talking to the Eagles, though. They understand what the stakes are, they know how hard they've worked to put themselves in position to make the playoffs. Their margin for error remains tiny, and they know that.
Wish I knew more about why the Vikings have so many close, end-of-game losses, whether their luck is bound to turn, or they just aren't good enough to close the deal. But I'm not going to get all hung up over that.
Eagles 27, Vikings 20.