THE EAGLES are midway through their season, 4-4, facing a home game Sunday that they pretty much have to win to remain viable playoff contenders, against the 6-3 Atlanta Falcons and the NFL's highest-scoring offense.
This is a year for rebuilding around rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, but it's also an opportunity to make a statement about what is to come, and a precious chance at the postseason for veterans who might not have that many such chances left. The Birds haven't made the playoffs since 2013, haven't won a playoff game since the 2008 season.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked Friday what he most wants to see from the second half of the schedule.
"A little more consistency offensively," Pederson said. "Learning how to finish drives, scoring in the red zone, those types of things that we saw early in the season," as the Eagles started out 3-0. "We've got to get back to doing that.
"Defensively, I think we have to keep doing what we're doing, putting pressure on the quarterback, creating turnovers."
Pederson indicated he was generally satisfied with the special teams, which have been up and down the past few weeks but hugely successful overall.
So, offensive consistency. Why such a hard thing to find and keep?
"We gotta find our groove and stay in that same mindset," said Jordan Matthews, the team's leading receiver, with 42 catches for 507 yards and three touchdowns. "Stay with that same hunger. We can't have a good drive, feel good about ourselves, then come out and don't do well the next couple drives. We can't start games bad, like we did (against the Giants) and say, 'OK, game's on the line, let's start picking it up.' We have to come out with that same intensity, same attention to detail and keep that momentum high."
Obviously, this is a team with a rookie quarterback, that has been experimenting with running back by committee since Ryan Mathews started having fumbling problems, and his production dropped. The wideouts don't scare anyone. The three tight ends were supposed to be a potent threat, but they've rarely all been healthy and productive. Friday, TE Trey Burton popped up on the injury report with a hamstring problem, joining Brent Celek (rib) as questionable for Sunday, though both are expected to play.
And then there's the offensive line, which has affected the tight end situation, rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, especially, needing tight end help.
"Obviously, losing a guy like Lane (Johnson) does hurt things a little bit . . . The cohesiveness, they all have to move (in sync)," Matthews said. "You have a guy that's there all offseason, that's gone, it's something you have to adapt to . . . 'Big V' has gotten better."
The Eagles and Vaitai will reach the halfway point Sunday of Johnson's 10-game PED suspension. Also missing right now is left guard Allen Barbre, out for the second week in a row with a hamstring. He'll again be replaced by Stefen Wisniewski. Friday, the other starting guard, Brandon Brooks, went home ill before practice, so rookie Isaac Seumalo worked with the first unit, though Brooks is expected to play Sunday.
The main pass-catching tight end, Zach Ertz, has only 23 catches for 247 yards and no touchdowns at midseason. Ertz missed two games with a dislocated rib, and didn't seem to be on Wentz's radar the first few games after he returned.
"You see times where it looks like we're unstoppable on offense, and then we get down to the red zone and don't execute," Ertz said. The Birds are 25th in red- zone scoring, at 46.88 percent. They went 4-for-10 in their losses at Dallas and the Giants the last two weeks.
"We got the guys in place," Ertz said. "You look around the offense, there's a lot of talent . . . We're not looking at anything saying we need a few years to mature. This team's ready to win now and it's up to us to get it done."
Celek said: "Offensively, there's times where we've showed flashes of greatness, and then there's times where we just look like straight garbage."
One factor might be that though Vaitai has gotten a little better every week, since his disastrous debut in an Oct. 16 loss at Washington, he still is nowhere near the level of Johnson, who was having a Pro Bowl-level season. Pederson's critique of Wentz's two interceptions Sunday - four of his five on the season have come in the last three games - indicated he thought Wentz was feeling a little too sensitive to pressure, moving more than he needed to. That will happen when a QB isn't sure of the guys around him.
Grymes makes debut
When the Eagles have a lot of extra players in training camp, they wheel in these portable locker stalls, each unit able to accommodate four players, and they line them up in the center of the NovaCare locker room. Midway through the season, only one such unit remains, and it has one lonely occupant: Aaron Grymes.
But Grymes, a cornerback, might be moving to a better spot, after going from the practice squad to the active roster Friday. Doug Pederson said he will be active against the Falcons, taking the special-teams role of safety Terrence Brooks, out with a hamstring injury suffered against the Giants.
Grymes, 25, played three years for the Edmonton Eskimos, of the Canadian Football League, after going undrafted out of Idaho. He looked good in training camp but suffered an AC joint sprain and was released with an injury settlement. He came back Oct. 24, after Ron Brooks went on injured reserve.
Another factor in Grymes joining the roster is that starting corner Leodis McKelvin is still battling his recurring hamstring problem, which made him only a partial practice participant Thursday and Friday.
Grymes, 5-11, 185 said: "It's been some years coming . . . Very happy with the position I'm in now. Wouldn't take it back for anything. I think it all helped mold me."
The Falcons will be missing Pro Bowl corner Desmond Trufant, ruled out with a shoulder injury. Also sidelined are running back Tevin Coleman, who has scored five touchdowns, and tight end Jacob Tamme, who has 22 catches for 210 yards and three TDs.