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Eagles' running back rotation will spin forward

DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews offered the same reaction when asked whether this is the freshest they have felt at this point in December.

DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews offered the same reaction when asked whether this is the freshest they have felt at this point in December.

"Yes," Murray said with a grin. "Very fresh."

Mathews chuckled when he heard the question and answered in the affirmative.

The distribution of playing time in the Eagles backfield has become an intriguing subplot this month, with Murray relegated to a reduced role and the Eagles appearing to focus less on one featured back. In the win Sunday over Buffalo, Murray played 25 snaps, Mathews played 20, Darren Sproles 27, and Kenjon Barner 5.

The playing time was split throughout much of the season, but it was always Murray who took the most snaps when he was healthy. Against the Bills, the distribution was as even as it has been all season, and there could be a similar approach Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

It also means that Murray, who signed a five-year contract worth as much as $40 million, might remain part of a rotation.

"I've never been concerned with making any individual happy," coach Chip Kelly said when asked if he needs to give carries to Murray to placate him. "Our focus and goal is always on trying to win the football game. So anywhere I've ever been, I've never heard any coach ever discuss anything like that. . . . Everybody wants to win and we're going to do whatever we can to win the football game."

Murray remained diplomatic about his current role. He said he must take advantage of whatever opportunities the coaching staff gives him. Those opportunities have been dwindling. Murray has averaged 19.5 snaps and 10.5 touches during the last two games. He averaged 39.3 snaps and 19.4 touches during the first 10.

"It is what it is," Murray said. "You always want to contribute as much as you can. We're winning. At the time, that's all that matters. . . . It's different. Obviously I've never been in this situation. But we're tied for first place in the division."

Based on production, it's difficult to argue that Murray should play more. He averages 3.5 yards per carry, which is worse than Mathews' 5.3 and Sproles' 4.

However, in a closer look at Murray's numbers, his third-down performance sticks out. He averages 6.1 yards per carry on 15 third downs and has converted first downs on each attempt. He has needed only 1.47 yards to go on those third downs, so Murray well exceeds what he needs.

"Third down, that's the money down," Murray said. "You always just want to get the first down, and whatever after that is extra."

Kelly said the Eagles benefited against Buffalo from workable third-down situations, when Murray's running style can be an advantage.

"He's a downhill, physical runner that gives you an opportunity that when you're in a third and 1, third and 2, or a third and 3, that he's going to [get it]," Kelly said. "We talk about the line getting us half of it and the running back getting us the other half of it, and [Murray] always seems to be going forward, so that's a positive thing he brings to the table for us."

That's not as much the case on the first two downs. He averages 2.85 yards on first downs and 3.81 on second downs.

Mathews' statistics suggest that he flourishes on first and second downs, but not on third downs. He averages 5.81 yards on first down and 5.59 yards on second down. He has averaged 0.75 yards on eight third-down opportunities.

Mathews could play a larger role Sunday than he did against the Bills. He missed three games because of a concussion and was limited early last week. Kelly said Mathews' conditioning has been better during practice this week.

"Just having that week, it's a big difference," Mathews said. "I feel like I'm getting back on track."

Sproles also will maintain a steady role in the offense. The Eagles want to find more ways to get the ball in his hands. During the last two seasons, the Eagles are 8-3 when he scores a touchdown. He scored in the Eagles' last two wins, including one on a rush and one on a punt return.

The amount of touches and snaps depends on how many total plays the Eagles run. But the running backs are all fresh, so the intrigue about their playing time will not dissipate.

"We've got a lot of talented guys on this team," Murray said, "and we've only got one football, and it's hard to get everyone involved at the same time."

Extra points

Vinny Curry missed practice Thursday because of an illness. Every other player was a full participant, including cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle) and wide receiver Jordan Matthews (back).