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Bowen: Eagles need more than Wentz to compete in NFC East

THE METRIC for most people, when the Eagles' season began, was that success would equate to growth and good health for Carson Wentz, assurance that the organization did the right thing when it traded up to draft its franchise quarterback second overall last spring.

THE METRIC for most people, when the Eagles' season began, was that success would equate to growth and good health for Carson Wentz, assurance that the organization did the right thing when it traded up to draft its franchise quarterback second overall last spring.

By that metric, the season is a success, though not an unqualified one, as the 5-9 Eagles prepare to play out the string Thursday night against the Giants, and then on New Year's Day against Dallas.

Wentz has some issues he needs to work on during the offseason. He certainly needs more weapons and a more stable offensive line. Still, people who evaluate such things for a living think he has shown plenty of growth and poise, along with all the requisite physical tools.

That preseason metric might not have been sufficient, though. This looks like a different NFC East world than the one envisioned by a simple, do-the-Birds-have-a-franchise-QB-to-build-around yes/no rubric.

As underdogs Thursday to the 10-4 Giants, and surely next week to the 12-2 Cowboys, the Eagles face the very real prospect of going winless in their division. This has happened exactly once under the current divisional alignment, in 2005. (In 1972, the Eagles didn't win any divisional games but tied the Cardinals, who no longer are in the East.)

In 2005, you had Terrell Owens and injuries blowing up the nucleus of a team coming off a three-point Super Bowl loss. You could be pretty confident the division wasn't running away from the Eagles, and it wasn't. They took back the East title the next season, and defeated the Giants in a Wild Card playoff game.

This is a different landscape, one we might not have seen before. Every team in the division seems to have a franchise QB. Dallas, with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott headed for the Pro Bowl, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott the favorite to win the league's MVP award, and a punishing offensive line, might become to the rest of this decade what the Eagles were in the early-to-mid 2000s - the team everyone else in the East is chasing, trying to match.

The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the Eli Manning era and seem to have finally fixed the defense that was keeping them from contending for a third. They've won a lot of close games this season, which could be luck or could be good coaching from Ben McAdoo. They look like contenders as long as Manning, who turns 36 on Jan. 3, can remain effective.

Washington, meanwhile, also carries a winning record into the weekend (7-6-1). The Redskins have won five in a row over the Eagles. There are games in which Kirk Cousins still doesn't look like an elite QB, but those are never the games he plays against the Birds.

The 2016 Eagles can't make the playoffs or even finish .500, but they can still accomplish something important: They can show they are going to be competitive going forward, in the new-look NFC East.

"We're in a huge slide right now," safety Malcolm Jenkins acknowledged this week, the Eagles having lost five in a row and nine of 11 since a 3-0 start. Jenkins said these final two divisional games can "kind of build a foundation to roll into next year."

Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks said that "you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel," through the various close losses the team has endured, but obviously, that light glows brighter if you show you actually have the talent to do more than put up a decent fight.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday that "we hope to, in the near future, obviously be one of those, be the team in the NFC East that is consecutively and consistently playing for the postseason."

Earlier in his response to the same question, about the remarkable turnaround for the division this season, Pederson hinted that he doesn't see all three rivals as being way ahead of his group.

"Nobody wants to not win a game in their division. So we're trying on Thursday night our best to try to eliminate that," Pederson said. "To me, you look at all the teams and the three teams ahead of us obviously are still sort of - outside of Dallas are still trying to fight for those spots and stay alive."

The Giants can clinch a playoff spot with a win Thursday, their first postseason trip since the 2011 season, from which they emerged as Super Bowl champions. Their previous meeting this season with the Eagles, which they won, 28-23, was like so many Eagles games - in fact, uncannily similar to last Sunday's one-point loss at Baltimore.

Both Sunday and on Nov. 6 at the Giants, Wentz threw a first-series interception that led to a touchdown. Both Sunday and Nov. 6 at the Giants, Hicks intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter that gave his team a shot. Both Sunday and on Nov. 6 at the Giants, a Wentz pass to Jordan Matthews that could have won the game fell incomplete, on the Eagles' final snap.

Hicks said this week that "execution" is what has been missing in repeated close losses. "That comes with experience, that comes with playing together," he said. "Every single snap counts. One can be a game-changer. When you've got multiple people saying, 'My bad,' you don't execute, that's how you get beat in this league."

Hicks said that as the days dwindle, "it's tough to think about" the fact that "this season could be completely different."

Wentz was asked what he recalled from the first meeting with the Giants.

"We came up about a foot short. I just missed Jordan" on a fourth-down pass to the end zone, Wentz said. He threw the ball to Matthews' outside shoulder. Matthews was expecting it to his inside shoulder.

"All these close games, you come up short time and time again, that sucks," Wentz said. "It's tough. There's things we say we've gotta learn from, but at the end of the day, we have to find a way to win these ballgames."

The Eagles say they're making progress, that finally scoring the last-minute touchdown at Baltimore was important, even if they couldn't come up with the two-point conversion. But going into the offseason, they still need, as defensive end Brandon Graham said, "something to hang our hat on."