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Ready or not, Eagles are prime-time players

With four prime-time games and a Thanksgiving matchup with the Cowboys, schedule is still less grueling than it was last season.

Eagles center Jason Kelce, quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Eagles center Jason Kelce, quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy. (Matt Rourke/AP)Read more

WELL, IT COULD have been worse. There is no three-game death march this year like there was last season when NFL schedule-maker Howard Katz saw fit to send the Eagles on the road for 3 successive weeks in late September and early October.

And they won't have to wait 12 weeks for their bye like they did last year. That will come in Week 7, just as the autumn leaves are at full blush, and just after they've won four of their first six games, according to my imperfect calculations.

But then it gets tricky. Three out their first four post-bye games are on the road, to Arizona, to Houston and to Green Bay, with a home game against a Carolina team that won 12 games and the NFC South last year mixed in.

They finish with a five-game stretch that will decide everything, starting with a Thanksgiving visit to Dallas, a battle at the Linc on 10 days rest against Super Bowl-champion Seattle, and finally, three straight division games against the Cowboys, the Redskins and the Giants, the last two on the road.

Last year's 10-6 rags-to-riches season got Chip Kelly's team noticed. Their schedule includes four prime-time games, plus the Turkey Day battle against the Cowboys. Last year, they had just one, not including a mandatory Thursday night game and two late-season games that were "flexed" into prime time.

The opponent won-lost numbers say the Eagles have the 13th easiest schedule in the league this season (122-133-1, .479), easier than the Redskins (125-130-1, .490), easier than the Cowboys (125-131, .488) and slightly harder than the Giants (119-137, .465).

They will face just five 2013 playoff teams - Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, Green Bay and Indianapolis - and only two - the Colts and 49ers - in their first eight games, though both are on the road.

But as history has shown, strength of schedule doesn't mean much in the NFL, where injuries and turnovers and poor quarterback play can quickly turn good teams into bad ones, and a good draft and some smart free-agent additions and ball security and good quarterback play can transform a three-win team into a 10-win playoff club.

This isn't the NBA, where turnarounds are next to impossible unless you get naked and embarrass yourself for 2 or 3 years.

The NFL is the land of parity. So don't go putting a "W" by that Week 1 game against Jacksonville or that Week 5 game against St. Louis or that Week 9 game against Houston or even that Week 12 game against Tennessee quite yet.

Last year, the Eagles became the 13th team since 2003 to make it to the postseason after winning four or fewer games the previous season.

But the next step is a little more difficult. Since 2003, just three teams that made the playoffs the year after winning four or less games, managed to make the playoffs again the following year.

The Eagles were 6-4 against their 10 nondivision opponents last season. They were 1-3 against the AFC West, 3-1 against the NFC Central and 2-0 against their other to nondivision foes, Tampa Bay and Arizona. They were 4-2 against the NFC East.

This year, they've got to play the NFC West, which is arguably the best division in the league, and the AFC South, which is arguably one of the worst. At least right now.

The NFC West was a collective 42-22. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl, the 49ers lost to them in the NFC Championship Game and the Cardinals won 10 games and missed the playoffs by a sliver.

The Eagles play the Niners on the road early (Week 4) and the Rams at home early (Week 5). The Rams won seven games last year despite the fact that their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, missed nine games. They own two of the first 13 picks in next month's draft. They won't be a pushover.

The Eagles have the Cardinals in the desert right after their Week 7 bye and then host the Seahawks in Week 14, right in the middle of their final four division games.

The Eagles were one of the healthiest teams in the league last year. A lot of that had to do with Kelly's sports science stuff, and a lot of it, quite frankly, had to do with luck. Tuesday practices and stretching before bed might help reduce soft-tissue injuries, but luck is a lot more effective at preventing torn ACLs, ruptured Achilles' tendons, broken ankles and concussions.

The remarkably healthy Eagles managed to finish strong last season, winning seven of their final eight games and winning the division by two games.

They will need the same kind of strong finishing kick this season with four of their last five games against division opponents. No other team in the NFC East plays that many division foes in the final 5 weeks. The Cowboys and Redskins each have three of their last five games against division opponents. The Giants have just two.

So it could be worse, but another double-digit win season and another division title are anything but certainties.