By late Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, we'll know for sure if the Eagles' decision to remain on the West Coast after last week's loss to Seattle was a brilliant field maneuver that conserved the energy of Doug Pederson's tired troops or a disastrous misreading of what the team needed to regain equilibrium after its first loss in nearly three months.
How will we know? By looking at the lights in the scoreboard, assuming they are still visible despite drifting smoke from the wildfires that have hectored Los Angeles from the north.
That's how these things are measured, and Pederson, despite the team's 10-2 record, sounded a little worried in his dispatches from Orange County, where the team bunkered in for its preparations, safe from the fires but wary of being distracted by the bright lights of Disneyland. Pederson spoke of regaining focus, particularly during practices, something he implied had been slipping a little in recent weeks.
"When I start seeing the same mistakes in ball games that you kind of see during the week, we've just got to get back to the … not necessarily the grind, but we've got to get back to just focusing in on all our jobs and owning that," Pederson said.
That's a far different tune from what was played for nine weeks, which had everything to do with those lights in the scoreboard, of course, and particularly with the name of the opponent displayed on it. While Pederson bemoaned the seven penalties committed against the Seahawks – and they were costly – he had only lightly addressed the 11 penalties and three fumbles lost the week before against Chicago in a 28-point win. The fact is the Eagles have committed more than seven penalties in six of their wins this season.
That's a reminder that the key to winning football games isn't eliminating errors but making sure the other guy makes more of them. Easier done with mediocre opponents, obviously, and only one of the Eagles' wins this season has come against a team that currently has a winning record. That's no one's fault. You play the schedule the league sends out, but it was clear in Seattle that a steady diet of double-digit winning margins didn't do much for their readiness.
"I think sometimes … winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any," Pederson said. "We need games where we get hit in the mouth, and we have to fight and battle and scratch. You have to understand … there's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work."
He didn't bring up this part of it, and wasn't asked to, but it's likely the Eagles spent more time on football and less on celebration choreography as they got ready for the 9-3 Rams and their first game within Los Angeles city limits since 1986. The win over Chicago was a veritable revue that featured a bowling-ball-and-pins pantomime after one touchdown and an on-field Electric Slide line dance that threatened to delay the game. Fun is fun, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying a nine-game winning streak, but the Eagles appeared on the edge of enjoying it a little too much.
"Some teams play best when they're loose. Some teams, it's more of a grind," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "I think our guys have the ability to play with and have some fun on the field. But there is also a fine line between doing that and losing focus. Maybe that's something we can improve on."
You can bet it was mentioned by the coaches as they attempted to get the team back into an orderly routine while living out of a hotel and practicing in a baseball stadium. If nothing else, the Seattle game put some punch into their preaching, and that will be duly noted if the Eagles rebound against the Rams. There are few NFL chestnuts as frequently polished as the one that says a December loss might prevent one in January.
So, leave it to Sunday's scoreboard to determine if the travel plan was a good one, if losing to the Seahawks was actually a well-disguised blessing, if the Eagles needed to recalibrate their attention to detail, and if Doug Pederson's boys can survive a good punch to the mouth.
By late afternoon, it will become clear, even if the air isn't, that the smoldering threat to the Eagles season either has been contained or that their confidence in being able to win big games against good teams is fully aflame.