First, it was because they were new. Now, it's because they're young up the middle. What's going to be Andy Reid's next excuse for the disappointing way his team has played this season? The dog ate my playbook?

Reid usually offers little in the way of an explanation after defeats beyond his two usual go-to lines, "I gotta do a better job," and "I gotta put my players in better position to make plays." But he has grabbed on to this youth excuse with real gusto this past week.

It's almost as if some spin doctor in the organization came to him and said, "OK, if you want to keep your job, this is what we're going to do. We're going to blame it all on youth from here on in. Anybody asks you about anything, play the youth card. A busted coverage that results in a touchdown? 'We're young.' A half-dozen missed tackles on a 40-yard run? 'We're young.' Doughnuts missing from the cupboard? 'We're young.' That'll be your story and you need to stick to it."

"That's the way the NFL works today," Reid said the other day. "You're going to have changeover ... I understood that we were going to be young up the middle, and our primary concern is to ensure that we're going to continue to get better. So that's what we're working on doing."

The only problem with the we're-too-young excuse is that it's a bunch of bull. Youth doesn't seem to be a problem for his offensive line, which has two rookie starters and yet has given up just 21 sacks and is helping LeSean McCoy make a serious run for the NFL rushing title. The two quarterbacks that have combined for the Eagles' league-high 22 interceptions have a total of 17 years of NFL experience. Too young? How about too careless.

Look around the league. Lots of teams have young players in critical roles. The question that needs to be asked is whether the young players the Eagles have at linebacker and safety are good enough.

They are young up the middle by the team's own choosing. They could have brought in a veteran middle linebacker this summer. The Titans' Stephen Tulloch was there for the picking. But they passed on him, thinking they'd be just fine with an improved pass-rush and their super-duper trio of cornerbacks. They were wrong.

Meanwhile, Tulloch signed with Detroit, where he has helped a Lions defense that finished 21st in the league last year improve to 13th.

The Broncos are leading the AFC West with ex-Eagle Joe Mays as their starting middle linebacker and ex-Eagle Brian Dawkins at safety.

The Browns can't score to save their lives, but their defense, which is run by former Eagles secondary coach Dick Jauron, is ranked eighth overall and first against the pass with ex-Eagle Chris Gocong as their starting SAM linebacker and Sheldon Brown as their starting right corner.

The 9-3 Ravens, who are third in the league in defense, have starting safety Bernard Pollard, whom the Eagles could have claimed off the waiver wire 3 years ago or signed as a free agent this summer for a fraction of what they paid Vince Young.

Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo simplified the defense after replacing Sean McDermott during the off-season. That was supposed to reduce the learning curve for new and young players. Yet, 12 games into the season, they still are blowing coverages, still are looking bewildered before the snap. Hell, they had 12 men on the field on a kneel-down at the end of the Seattle loss last week. They may be young, but they should be old enough to count.

The Rice way

Three years ago, DeSean Jackson, Matt Forte and Ray Rice were taken in the second round of the 2008 draft — Forte with the 44th overall pick by the Bears, Jackson with the 49th pick by the Eagles and Rice with the 55th pick by the Ravens.

They all have turned out to be outstanding NFL players who have outperformed the modest rookie deals they signed. All of them would like hefty contract extensions. And all of them will be free agents after this season.

But while Forte and Jackson have whined about their inability to get new deals, Rice has kept his mouth shut and has put all of his focus on helping the Ravens get back to the playoffs.

Jackson has let his frustration over his contract situation affect his performance and his attitude, which in turn, will affect what he gets paid next year, by either the Eagles or someone else. He is having the poorest season of his career. Has just one touchdown catch and one 100-yard receiving game in his last 10 starts. Hasn't had a reception in the red zone since Week 1.

Rice? Well, he rushed for a career-high 204 yards in the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Browns last week, has 11 touchdowns and is second in the league in yards from scrimmage. And he is dealing just fine with his contract situation.

"I just live by the creed of, 'If you take care of what you've got to take care of on the field, then you'll be taken care of,' " the Rutgers product said. "I just think that's the only way to go about it. Talking and complaining about it are not going to get you paid. Everybody knows that.

"I'm still under contract anyhow, so as the season nears an end, obviously you get more into that stuff. But [you have to] put the personal stuff aside. You're winning and you're on a winning team. Obviously, you're playing for guys like Ray Lewis and the veterans, and you think about everything that they've been through. You're trying to get those guys to the Promised Land. So I'm able to easily block that stuff out, put my ego aside and try to do everything I can for the team."

Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "That's exactly how he's approached it. That's what you hope all the guys would do. It's going to work out the way it's going to work out. There are a lot of things that go into it, but he understands that playing well, winning and being a leader and team player is not just the right thing to do, but it's also the path that leads towards the most success financially as well."

McCoy by the numbers

LeSean McCoy is second in the league in rushing with 1,134 yards and 12 touchdowns. A breakdown of his season by quarter and by down:

Att.    Yds.  TD   Avg.
1st quarter  54     257    2     4.8
2nd quarter 58     248    4     4.3
3rd quarter  59     334    4     5.7
4th quarter  44     295    2     6.7
1st down    107    503    4     4.7
2nd down    84     537    7     6.4
3rd down    20      89     1      4.4
4th down     4        5      0     1.2

- McCoy is averaging 6.1 yards per carry in the second half and 4.5 in the first half.

- He has converted 19 of 24 situations of 2 yards or less into first downs in the last seven games. In the first five games he was 9-for-16.

Figuring the Eagles

If you're wondering why the Eagles have been tinkering with the linebackers in their nickel package the last couple of weeks, replacing Brian Rolle with Keenan Clayton last week and Jamar Chaney with Casey Matthews this week, take a look at their third-down numbers the last five games. Juan Castillo's defense hasn't been able to get off the field on third down, and Rolle's and Chaney's coverage struggles are one of the reasons for that, as is a pass-rush that has been coming up small on third down. Opponents have converted 29 of 67 third- down opportunities (43.3 percent) in the last five games. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 65.3 percent of their third- down passes and have averaged 11.0 yards per attempt on third down. The Eagles have managed just four sacks on third down in the last five games.

This and that

- Andy Reid may be shocked to hear this, but it really isn't that hard for a coach to provide an adequate explanation of what went wrong on a play without blaming one of your players. After last week's 38-35 loss to the Packers, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked whether there was a busted coverage on a third-quarter touchdown pass. "Yes, it was a busted coverage," Coughlin said. "They ran a switch route and we didn't fall off outside."

- Even with a 7-5 record, nobody seems to care about the Bengals in Cincinnati. There are so many unsold tickets for Sunday's game against the 8-3 Texans that the club announced on Wednesday that the game would be blacked out. It's the ninth blackout in the Bengals' last 10 home games. Their average attendance this season is 49,619. Capacity at Paul Brown Stadium is 65,515. Just two of their games have drawn more than 50,000 people. The University of Cincinnati's Nov. 12 game against West Virginia at PBS drew 48,152, which was more than the crowds for the Bengals' first two home games against the 49ers and Buffalo.

- People close to University of Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones think there's a good chance he'll follow former Sooner Sam Bradford's lead and return for his final year of eligibility next year rather than turning pro. Jones is considered a possible first-round pick. But his fiancée, Whitney Hand, who is the point guard on the school's women's basketball team, also has another year of eligibility. Bradford returned for his final year of eligibility in '09 and ended up injuring his shoulder and missing most of the season. He was the first pick in the draft last year.

Thumbs Up

To Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, who has managed to get a team that opened the season with seven straight losses to play hard and well for him in the second half. The Dolphins have won four of their last five games and are playing better right now than most of the teams who will be going to the playoffs next month. His quarterback, Matt Moore, has thrown just two interceptions in the last seven games and his defense is fifth in the league in points allowed. Sparano, who probably is going to get fired at season's end, refused to throw in the towel after his team's 0-7 start pretty much sealed his fate, and his players followed his lead.

Thumbs Down

To Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose lack of faith in his quarterback, Tony Romo, cost him a game last week. With the Cowboys and Cardinals tied at 13, Romo completed a 15-yard pass to Dez Bryant that gave Dallas a first down at the Arizona 31 with 26 seconds left. Rather than use one of his two remaining timeouts and give Romo an opportunity to run another play or two and get the Cowboys in better field-goal range for Dan Bailey, he let Romo run the clock down to eight seconds and had Bailey try a 49-yarder. To make matters worse, he ``iced'' Bailey, calling a timeout just as the ball was being snapped. Bailey missed the kick and the Cardinals won in overtime. It's clear that Garrett liked Bailey's chances of making a 49-yard field goal better than he did Romo's chances of not throwing an interception.

FROM THE LIP

-- He's the comeback kid. That's what we call him. He brings this attitude about him that he's so positive and always optimistic. That rubs off on guys. He's helped give us confidence that if we have a chance to win late in the game, we're going to win.'' – Broncos WR Eric Decker on QB Tim Tebow

-- I don't believe that for one second that would happen. I think it's real easy to write about, and it cracks me up because the media will be the first ones to downplay it and take a mocking position about things. Then when a team rises up and wins, they're the first ones to start cutting people in half with machine gun fire for taking a team lightly.'' – Ravens coach John Harbaugh on whether he's worried about his 9-3 team taking the 0-12 Colts lightly this week

-- I don't think it'd necessarily be great for either one. I doubt if either one wants to play on the same team.'' – Peyton Manning's father Archie on the possibility of the Colts selectingh Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft

BY THE NUMBERS

-- The 49ers have not allowed a rushing touchdown in 13 straight games, dating back to last season. Since 1970, the only team to put together a longer streak was the '85-86 Bears, who didn't give up a rushing TD in 15 straight games.

-- In their back-to-back losses to the Packers and Saints, the Giants gave up a combined 1,026 total yards, including 732 passing yards.

-- The Broncos are just the third team in the last 20 years to win five straight games as underdogs. The other two: the '06 Titans and the '01 Redskins.

-- The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski has 13 receiving touchdowns, which ties him with the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2004) and the 49ers' Vernon Davis (2009) for the most TD receptions by a tight end in a single season.

-- With a win over the Redskins Sunday, the Patriots will notch their ninth straight 10-win season. The only team with more consecutive 10-win seasons is the 49ers, who did it 16 years in a row from 1983 through '98.

-- With three more rushing touchdowns last week, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton broke the league record for most rushing TDs by a quarterback in a season. Newton has 13, which breaks the old record of 12 set by Steve Grogan in 1976.

-- Broncos safety Brian Dawkins recorded his 36th career forced fumble in last week's win over the Vikings. That's the third most since the league started tracking the statistic in 1994. The only two players with more – the Dolphins' Jason Taylor (48) and the Colts Dwight Freeney (43) – both are edge-rushers, who get a lot more strip opportunities than Dawkins does.

Domo's NFL Rankings (for Dec. 10)

1 Packers 12-0 1

2 Saints 9-3  2

3 Ravens 9-3 3

4 Steelers 10-3 4

5 49ers 10-2 5

6 Patriots 9-3 6

7 Texans 9-3 8

8 Bengals 7-5 7

9 Jets 7-5 13

10 Titans 7-5 15

11 Bears 7-5 9

12 Lions 7-5 10

13 Broncos 7-5 17

14 Raiders 7-5 11

15 Falcons 7-5 14

16 Giants 7-5 16

17 Cowboys 7-5 12

18 Dolphins 4-8 20

19 Bucs 4-8 18

20 Bills 5-7 19

21 Seahawks 5-7 21

22 Chargers 5-7 25

23 Eagles 4-8 22

24 Chiefs 5-7 26

25 Cardinals 5-7 24

26 Browns 4-9 23

27 Panthers 4-8 30

28 Redskins 4-8 27

29 Vikings 2-10 31

30 Jaguars 3-9 28

31 Rams 2-10 29

32 Colts 0-12 32