The Eagles get a shot at the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, and it's a good measuring stick, especially since coach Pete Carroll's team comes in playing its best football of the season.
Going into the game, it is fair to say the jury is still out as to whether the Eagles' offense and defense are good enough to reach and win the big game that will be played Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
The offense scores a lot of points, but it also leads the league with 28 turnovers and is ranked 29th in red-zone production. The defense has its moments of brilliance (see Thanksgiving in Dallas) and is terrific at getting takeaways, but it's impossible to forget the massacre against Green Bay, which is nicely positioned to gain home field throughout the NFC playoffs.
It's not a stretch at all, however, to declare that the Eagles' special teams are already Super Bowl quality. It's also not an exaggeration to declare this the best special-teams unit in franchise history, which is high praise when you consider that John Harbaugh used to be in charge of that underappreciated phase of the game.
Chris Maragos, one of three difference-making free agents the Eagles signed to play special teams in the offseason, knows quality in that aspect of the game when he sees it. He saw it last year when he was a member of the Seahawks, whose special teams were recognized by FootballOutsiders.com and Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News as the fifth best in the NFL.
As good as the Seahawks were on special teams en route to winning it all, Maragos is willing to admit that what the Eagles have done so far in 2014 has gone beyond those contributions.
"It's a really tough question because we had a really good special-teams unit last year," Maragos said. "Just really solid. Here, we've just had a ton of explosive plays, and we've been really solid, too. This is the best [special-teams] season I've ever been a part of."
The big plays by the special teams are well-documented. Darren Sproles, an offseason trade addition, has returned two punts for touchdowns and is second in the NFL with a 14.5-yard average per return. Only Atlanta's Devin Hester has a better return average, but Sproles has 18 more returns and also contributes more on offense.
The Eagles also have two kickoff returns for touchdowns - one by Chris Polk and another by Josh Huff. They also have returned two of their three blocked punts for touchdowns - one by Brad Smith and another by Maragos. That's an extraordinary six touchdowns from special teams.
But the brilliance goes beyond that. Rookie kicker Cody Parkey has hit 27 of 29 field goals, including all four attempts from beyond 50 yards, and his 41 touchbacks are tied for fifth in the NFL. Punter Donnie Jones is only 27th in net punting average, but his specialty is pinning teams inside the 20-yard line. He is second in the NFL in that vital department with 25.
It's no accident that special teams is the most improved of the Eagles' three phases. It had become an area in decline during Andy Reid's final years and was still acknowledged as a weakness that needed to be addressed after last season. In addition to Maragos, the Eagles signed linebacker Bryan Braman and cornerback Nolan Carroll II.
Long-snapper Jon Dorenbos, the longest-tenured member of the Eagles' special teams, could not wait to see how special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp was going to bring it all together.
"Fipp is the best coach I've ever had, and I remember thinking: 'Holy cow, with the leaders we have upstairs and the players they are going to bring in, this is going to be a good deal,' " Dorenbos said.
Carroll had played for Fipp in Miami and said his old coach was one of the reasons he signed with the Eagles.
"Every week has been consistent," Carroll said. "I think Fipp has done a good job of staying on top of everybody and holding everybody accountable for doing their job on special teams. We know we can change the outcome of a game. He's instilled that power into our minds."
There is no nickname for the Eagles' special-teams unit, but a couple of duos have been tagged with monikers.
"We've got the Wrecking Crew, which is Brandon Graham and Bryan Braman," Carroll said. "And then we've got the Smash Brothers, that's Trey Burton and James Casey. Other than that, we don't have any names."
Braman said he believes the coaches came up with those names, but he would not dare attempt to give the entire unit a nickname.
"I'd leave that up to somebody else," he said. "I wouldn't say it's up to the players to give the unit a nickname. That's more of an outsiders' perspective to say, 'Hey, this is what this group is.' "
The best in the NFL is not catchy, but it accurately describes the Eagles' special teams this season.