The most significant of Chip Kelly's 19 wins as Eagles coach came on a Sunday night last December, when the Eagles clinched the NFC East over the Dallas Cowboys in a game that cemented the team's turnaround in Kelly's first season in Philadelphia.
One December later, the Eagles are again playing the Cowboys in a Sunday prime-time game. And though the winner will not clinch the division, it will take over first place with only two games remaining.
"This game will kind of be like last year's game in Dallas," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "Everybody knows it's going to be us or them going to the playoffs. So this game means everything. From that standpoint, everybody knows what it is."
The Eagles would still be able to win the division or make the playoffs with a loss, but they would need help from another team. The Eagles dominated Dallas 17 days ago in a 33-10 Thanksgiving win, then experienced the opposite in a 24-14 loss to Seattle last week.
Kelly spoke after the first Cowboys game about playing "meaningful December football," which there has been in Philadelphia for consecutive winters. Last season, the Eagles had only 22 players who had been on a playoff team. This season, the Eagles have 41.
But the stakes have been raised. After winning the NFC East in Kelly's first season, anything less would seem like a step back.
"I think everybody is a by-product of their experiences, so they have an opportunity to understand - at least the group of guys that were around last year - what this is like," Kelly said. "And then some of the new guys . . . that we've brought in have been in those situations, too. You're always a by-product of your experiences, and you hope that it benefits them and they understand what's at stake as you get down here to the last three games left."
Rise to the occasion?
One maxim Kelly preaches to his players is that they don't rise to the occasion but rather sink to their training. It's a part of two bedrocks to what Kelly's trying to instill in the Eagles.
The first is the value of each practice, which has roots in Kelly's "win the day" mantra at Oregon. The second is not to elevate any one game above another, which Kelly has noted since his first day in Philadelphia to explain why he does not overhype rivalries. Even last week, Kelly did not overplay the importance of the Cowboys rematch, noting it is only significant because or earlier results.
"If we didn't beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1, then we only have eight wins, and now we are in a lot tougher situation," Kelly said. "And if we don't go in Week 2 and kick the field goal and win at the end of the game against the Indianapolis Colts, then we have seven wins, and now we are really scrapping.
"They all add up. It's just when you get to the end of the season, this game looks like it's magnified, but it's only magnified for us because of how many wins we have going up into this."
After the Eagles lost to the Seahawks last week, Kelly almost immediately rerouted the message to winning the division. The players flushed the loss out of their system by the time they arrived for their Tuesday morning meeting. Quarterback Mark Sanchez even refused to answer a question about Seattle by the end of the week.
The Seahawks can have a residual effect on an opponent. The last seven teams they played all lost the following week. Players in the Eagles' locker room were not aware of that fact and did not think last week would affect them. NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth expects Sunday to be an "old-school NFC East" game that is decided on the offensive and defensive lines, so he will look there to determine how the Eagles respond from the Seattle loss.
Another Kelly mantra is to not let the "same game beat you twice." The Eagles have not lost back-to-back games since last October. After a dispiriting loss in Minnesota last season, the Eagles responded with back-to-back wins on Sunday Night Football to finish 10-6. Players say Kelly has been no different this week than any other week, which would seem by design. And for most of the players, it's a position they've been in before - many with Kelly last season.
"It's good to have guys who understand the importance of these situations and how hard it is to get to meaningful December games," linebacker Connor Barwin said. ". . . But we want to play meaningful January games. That's what we're looking forward to getting."
Still a contender?
During the Hall of Fame game in August, NBC's broadcast team filled time by discussing Super Bowl contenders. Collinsworth mentioned the Eagles as a team that would have a chance, citing the development of the offense in Kelly's second season.
"Obviously, they're much more advanced in the system offensively, and I still believe there's an uptick to come from this team," Collinsworth said in a Thursday telephone interview. "I picked them to go to the Super Bowl from the NFC; I'm a little shaky after watching Seattle last week, but not completely overwhelmed by it. I think getting [the offensive line] finally working together, I think we'll see them getting better and better."
Collinsworth said the Eagles are a "top-five team." The losses to Green Bay and Seattle stick out, but those are two of the best teams in the NFL. Losing to them is no embarrassment - especially when playing with a backup quarterback.
There has been no determination yet when Nick Foles will return or what will happen when he does. Plus, Foles was inconsistent when he was in the lineup. Sanchez has been capable in the backup role, and the loss of a quarterback is not being used as an excuse in the NovaCare Complex. The Eagles quarterbacks do not have the resumés of the contenders ahead of them.
"This is a really good team," Collinsworth said. "You take Tom Brady out of New England, I'm not sure where they'd be. You take Aaron Rodgers off of Green Bay and Russell Wilson off . . . it's pretty impressive the Eagles are playing toe-to-toe with a backup quarterback."
The Eagles lost their starting quarterback last season, too, and won the division. That set the bar. Winning the NFC East is a reasonable standard to reach. Collinsworth said all a team can hope for is to make the playoffs and secure a home game, because "if you're one of the 12, you have a chance." He added that the Eagles have an offense that can score 40 points any given week and a defense that is not receiving enough credit.
Collinsworth would not yet put them in the class of Green Bay or Seattle, because those teams have already shown they can beat the Eagles. But he insisted the Eagles are still "right there." They just need to duplicate last December's success and beat Dallas if they're going to have a chance to prove it.
"I know everybody wants to say, 'Forget the Super Bowl because they can't beat Green Bay and can't beat Seattle,' " Collinsworth said. "Well, I don't know that that's true. . . . It only takes one day. And do I think the Eagles offense is capable of playing better, even against a great defense, the one we just saw? I sure do."