The Eagles' postseason hopes last December were dashed when DeSean Jackson raced past defenders for 126 yards on a Week 16 Saturday night. The Washington Redskins wide receiver plagued the Eagles with a propensity for big plays that he often displayed in Philadelphia – and that the Eagles have had difficulty replacing since his unceremonious March 2014 ouster.
One year later, the Eagles host the Washington Redskins under similar circumstances. If the Eagles lose to Washington, they'll be eliminated from postseason contention on a Saturday night in Week 16. How the Eagles defend Jackson will again play a big part in the result.
"My motivation for this game is to win the game," Jackson said during a conference call Wednesday. "I could care less about what it has to do on the other end. We have something special to do here."
Jackson played only eight games this season and totaled only 26 catches for 488 yards and four touchdowns. But he's recovered from a hamstring injury and has looked like the Jackson of old in recent weeks. He has four touchdowns in five games, including scores of 56, 63, and 77 yards. Jackson averages 18.8 yards per catch. He has more catches of 40 plus yards in the last six weeks than any Eagles receiver has all season.
Jackson did not play when Washington beat the Eagles in Week 4. The Eagles are expecting the Redskins offense to look different on Saturday because of Jackson's presence - and a win would clinch the NFC East title for Washington.
"It's completely different," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Not from a schematic standpoint, but from a personnel standpoint. It is something that you have to pay attention to as a defense because although he's not the No. 1 target they have, every time he's targeted, it can be explosive. He can change a game probably quicker than all of their threats. So we have to know where he is at at all times. His ability to stretch the field is something to be respected, and we'll treat it accordingly."
It does not help the Eagles that they might be undermanned in the secondary. Top cornerback Byron Maxwell missed practice again on Wednesday because of a sprain in his SC joint. Eric Rowe has been cleared to return after suffering a concussion on Sunday, but Rowe is a rookie with only three career starts. If Maxwell is absent, the Eagles could turn to veteran E.J. Biggers as the starting cornerback.
"I could care less about who's guarding me," Jackson said. "Whoever it is, good luck to them."
Whoever it is, they know the assignment. Jackson's best as a vertical threat. Former teammate Riley Cooper tells anyone who asks that Jackson is "however fast he needs to be." Biggers, who teamed with Jackson in Washington last season, said he gained an appreciation for Jackson's ability to track balls. Jaylen Watkins, a reserve cornerback on the Eagles, said a mistake against Jackson ends up on ESPN.
"He's DeSean," Davis said. "He blows the top off of everything. We've got to be aware and over the top of him and have a lot of concentration on him."
But the challenge for the Eagles is not just Jackson, nor is it the other weapons such as Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed. The biggest challenge might be quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is one of the hottest passer in the NFL. In Cousins' last eight games, he has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 2,205 yards (275.6 yards per game) with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also rushed for four scores. Cousins helped beat the Eagles in Week 4, but his profile has since enhanced.
"When you watch the tape, I think the thing that stands out is his repetitive accuracy," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "He's extremely accurate with the football. It doesn't seem like he's putting the ball in harm's way. Not only is he completing it, he's always putting it in the right location."
Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Cousins has benefited from being the full-time starter and taking all the reps. The players around him also play a big role. Reed has 74 catches for 778 yards and nine touchdowns and is one of the best tight ends the Eagles have faced all season. Garcon caught a game-winning touchdown against the Eagles in October. And then with Jackson finally healthy, the Redskins appear to be peaking at an inopportune for the Eagles.
That was what Jackson wanted to discuss when speaking to Philadelphia reporters on Wednesday. He did not want to get into his time in Philadelphia, or the Eagles' offensive struggles after the exodus of former Pro Bowlers - "That's not my deal, bro," he said - and did not even want to mention the players he keeps in touch with in the locker room.
Gruden, who mentioned last year that he would talk to Jackson about controlling emotions, did not feel the need to do it this year. Jackson knows what's at stake on Saturday. And if the Eagles don't have an answer for them, then Jackson might beat Kelly to the playoffs in the wake of his departure.
"I look forward to coming back and playing in a city where I started a lot of great memories," Jackson said. "I definitely look forward to the opportunity."