Thursday, January 15, 2009

EAGLES - Fine Like Wine, Baby

Posted by Alli

"Fine like wine, baby." McNabb is apparently feeling increasingly confident as the Birds plow further into the playoffs, jokingly referring to his improved play as he gets older during a press conference. Oh that Donny Mac, always the media darling, lover of all things Philly.

Just 3 days now til the Eagles' glorious return to the NFC Championship, and to be honest, I've seen a few too many "experts" predicting a Cardinals victory. It's not that I'm overly confident that this is an easy-win, but if I had any inkling a few weeks ago that the Eagles would not only be playing for a slot in the Super Bowl, but that it'd be against.... the Arizona Cardinals!... I'd be feeling pretty good. So while I don't want to take this game lightly, as I'm sure the team isn't, I know that it's one these guys are more than capable of winning, and winning soundly. Anything can happen of course, but I just can't quite figure out why so many people seem to be laying their money on the red-birds.

No matter. The Eagles have now played 1 playoff game as the favorite and 1 as the underdog, so they can handle it either way. It looks like Anquan Boldin will be playing on Sunday, though I suspect that he won't be close to 100%. Nevertheless, like Westbrook for the Eagles, if he's out on the field he'll command some attention. Without Boldin, Jim Johnson would certainly put double coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, especially after watching the gashing he put on the Carolina secondary last week. However, even with a banged-up Boldin out there, I think it's still worth putting an extra man on Fitzgerald. A WR with a bad hammy is just not going to be running his routes and dodging defenders as effectively, and the Birds' D-backs are very good from top to bottom, so I trust that Boldin will not be free to rip them for any huge plays. Interesting note: the last WR to score a TD against the Eagles was Fitzgerald back in week 13.

Here are some keys to watch for, that I think will be crucial in determining the outcome of this game:
  • Minimize offensive mistakes: I think this goes without saying every week, but as long as the Eagles can keep the TOs to under 2, they should win this game. 2-even? Maybe still OK, but let's not take any chances. The offense should be able to have their best game of the playoffs against a better-but-still-mediocre Cardinal D, and so as long as they don't make any (many?) huge mistakes they shouldn't have a problem scoring the points necessary to trump Arizona- which may need to be 20 or more, as this Cardinals O is going to find the end zone at least twice themselves. The Eagles offense has been slow to get going the past 2 weeks, but unlike in the regular season, McNabb has been able to get past rickety starts to eventually get into a rhythm. That last drive in the 1st half of the Giants game, and the 3rd and 20 drive in the 2nd half, and the 2nd TD drive, were sheer beauties, vintage McNabb style. Not to take away from the Cards' improved defensive play last week, but Delhomme literally threw as many balls to Cardinals players as he did to his top receiver in that game, so I can really only credit so much of that to the D. Anyway, point being: McNabb needs to take care of the ball and keep errant throws at a minimum... no need to give their defense any help, or give Warner and co. a head start down the field.
  • Pressure Warner: This is obviously on the list of musts of any semi-competent analyst, writer, blogger or fan, but it still needs to be reiterated. Kurt Warner with lots of time in the pocket is lethal. Kurt Warner with persistant pressure on him is a turnover timebomb; the guy is about as mobile as a quadriplegic, so if he's got someone chasing him, he's goin' down and he's goin down fast, often squirting the ball loose in the process. Even if he protects the football, his accuracy plummets significantly when he has to hurry his throws. If there is any anecdote to the force that is the Cardinals passing game, this is it. But, easier said than done of course. The Birds have a good pass rush, but it has been pretty dormant in the sack department so far in the playoffs. However, even though they were never actually credited with a sack in the Giants game, there was heavy pressure on Eli before both of his picks. This is what they need to do again, against an o-line that isn't as big or strong as the Giants' was. I smell at least 1 Asante Samuel INT.
  • Red Zone efficiency: As their Achilles heel the last 2 seasons, the Eagles seem to hit a brick wall when they get to the 20. FGs were OK against the Giants because that was more of a defensive battle, but it's going to take TDs to beat the Cardinals. This was not a problem last meeting between the two when the Green-Birds scored 6 of 'em; they (hopefully!) won't need that many in this game, but I think at least 3 trips into the endzone will help ensure victory. If they get inside the 20 (which they need to, often) and especially if DeSean Jackson giftwraps them a trip or 2 there on a return, they've gotta capitalize. I don't want to see Akers until the extra point.

These keys are no short order, but they're things that this team is clearly capable of doing. For the first time in the playoffs, I'm no longer really that concerned about the run-pass ratio- whatever works on Sunday is fine with me. Injured or not, I think B-West has a big day and I think Andy & Marty find success with the screen pass again. The offense needs to get rolling more quickly than the last 2 games - once they do they're unstoppable, but they'll need to put up more against the best offense they've seen in the postseason - so early and often please, boys.

All week we've been blitzed with stats and records and facts and numbers, reasons why teams in Philly's situation can and can't win: the Cardinals are the lowest seed to ever host a conference championship, the Eagles were 4-5-1 on the road this regular season, teams that knock off the reigning Super Bowl champs are 0-11 the following week... aside from wondering who really has time to figure this crap out, I just don't care about any of that. At the end of the day, the Eagles have just beaten 2 teams on the road and they can do it again, period.

Wish I could be in Glendale on Sunday, but I suspect that the Eagles will make me proud again. I'm trying to block the first 3 McNabb era NFC championships out of my head- McNabb has matured since then, and I believe he's become calmer, wiser, more introspective... no longer feeling the need to carry the fate of the entire team on his shoulders. Fine like wine, baby.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

EAGLES - Back to the NFC Championship!

Posted by Alli

Wow. Seriously, wow... can we all just take a moment to appreciate what has unfolded for the Eagles in the last 3 weeks? The sheer unbelievableness of the path they took to make their 5th trip to the NFC championship game in the last 8 years is, well... unbelievable. While you'd think the luster of this game would be lost after having been there so many times, there is something special this time around. Where in previous years, a trip to the NFC championship was nothing short of expected, this season finished with an against-all-odds, Rocky Balboa flight into the playoffs, where I don't take a single game for granted.

Don't get me wrong... this team is good. They were good going into week 17, when they needed a handful of miracles and an act of god to make the playoffs, because you just knew that if they could somehow get into the postseason, they'd make some noise. It's saying a lot when a 6-seed is a favorite on the road in the conference championship game. This team is not the '07 Giants, because they've already earned respect despite their Wild Card status, and because they've already beaten 2 of the last 3 teams remaining in the playoffs, and because they've essentially been playing for their playoff lives since week 13... and of course, they're not the '07 Giants because the vast majority of those guys will be watching the remainder of this year's playoffs from their couches.

It's so interesting now that the Eagles will face the Arizona Cardinals as the last roadblock between them and the Super Bowl, in a rematch of that Thanksgiving night thrashing when the Birds pummeled the other birds 48-20. The very game that righted the sinking ship that was the then-5-5-1, nearly playoff-eliminated cesspool of a team that had just tied the Bengals and got beat up by the Ravens. A fitting rematch, no? Make no mistake about it though, the Eagles are not taking this squad lightly, as the Cards seem to have no found new life since they entered the postseason.

Nevertheless, I think Arizona will find that this team aint no Falcons and they aint no Panthers. Frankly, that brutality that took place in Carolina a few days ago showed me more of how bad the Panthers were rather than totally convinced me of how good the Cardinals are. The Cards' newly-improved D will have its toughest test of the playoffs against McNabb, Westbrook & co., and their hot passing game will have to find a way to get past Asante, Dawk, Sheldon & Mikell, no easy task. I think it'll be a tough, much closer game than last time, but I think that it's one that the Eagles can and should win. I'm not discounting how hot Arizona is right now, but we're even hotter. This defense is playing lights-out, and honestly, I think the Cards' D will be a bit of a breather for the Eagles O after facing the Vikes and G-men the last 2 weeks.

Word on the street is that Eagles fans are flying out to Glendale in droves, so hopefully we can look forward to hearing some E-A-G-L-E-S chants on TV this Sunday. I'm hardly counting this game as a cakewalk, but I'm optimistic that Philly has a very good shot at making it back to the Super Bowl. The playoff experience on this team is aplenty, and I think if they can make it to Tampa (same place the Phils started their World Series thumping... just sayin..) they can make something happen there.

Later in the week, I'll take a look back at what went right in the Giants game, and more importantly, look ahead to some factors to watch for in the upcoming game at Arizona. Fly Eagles fly!!

Monday, January 5, 2009

EAGLES - ...and on to the Giants

Posted by Alli

Well, it looks like I'm the only one posting lately, but then again the Eagles have merited a lot of conversation of late (Unlike, say, the Cowboys? Scratch that, they've merited plenty of attention, just not the kind that Taz is eager to post about). Yesterday in Minnesota, Andy Reid won his 7th straight opening playoff game as the Eagles knocked off the Vikings 26-14. To be honest though, the game wasn't nearly as stress-free as the score might suggest, as the Eagles clung to a miniscule 2 point lead until the last 6 minutes of the game. And the Birds failed to capitalize on a few of the bullet-points that I predicted they would need to do in order to win. Nevertheless, McNabb remained cool and in control throughout the game and made some key passes and 3rd down conversions to keep the Vikings defense on the field and control the time of possession. And in the playoffs, a win is a win is a win, so bring on the G-men!

If Philly plays the way they did in the first half yesterday, they lose to the Giants, in my opinion. It wasn't terrible, but the offense got off to a slow start, settling for field goals for their first 9 points. The surprising thing was that the offense, which has had a tendency to snowball early mistakes into later catastrophes, continued to persevere, and eventually began to pick apart a stingy Vikings D in the 2nd half. They now need to build on that strong second half if they want to take down the Giants at the Meadowlands next Sunday.

Here are a few things that will be key to continuing their playoff run, and how they did on each in yesterday's game:
  • Stick with the run... at least a little: I give Andy credit here, because the run game went pretty much nowhere all day yesterday, but he continued to stick with it, if for no other reason than to keep the Vikes' D honest and to run down some clock time. That's really all I ask for against the best run D in the league. I would have liked to see Buckhalter used more, especially considering he had the only effective run all day, for 27 yards. They NEED to run the ball against the G-men if they want to stay in the game and keep the offense on the field. In their week 14 victory over the Giants, the Eagles had more runs than pass plays, and Westbrook carried 33 times for 131 yards. The issue now is that Westbrook appears to be very banged up, and struggled yesterday until the huge screen play TD in the 4th. This is where Buck must come in: he NEEDS to get some carries on Sunday, especially with an ailing Westbrook. In case Andy hasn't noticed, Buckhalter has been extremely effective when he has the ball, and is among the league leaders in yards per touch. He also had a great block on that B-West TD, but let's see if he can be the one getting some screen passes this week.
  • Protect McNabb: This goes without saying every week, but the O-line finished the season strong and had the best sack-to-pass attempt ratio in franchise history. Unfortunately, the line was a little off its game yesterday, allowing 3 sacks and a lot more pressure on McNabb than I would have liked to see. Granted, blocking Jared Allen is no easy task, but neither is the Giants pass rush, so this is hugely crucial in the coming week. The last thing we want to see is McNabb on the ground a lot, or having defenders in his face on every other play. Hopefully the O-line can step it up this week- containing Justin Tuck is a must.
  • Keep Celek involved in the offense: Brent Celek has done a superb job filling in for the injured L.J. Smith (I'm one of the many fans who has no problem seeing L.J. remain sidelined) and the Eagles O is a lot more effective when McNabb can spread the ball around to a lot of receivers, especially the tight ends. Celek had 6 catches for 56 yards yesterday (Matt Schobel had another for 7) and this was huge in helping the Birds extend their offensive drives. In the 3 consecutive weeks against all 3 NFC East foes (weeks 13-15) in November and December, the Giants allowed a total of 22 catches by tight ends. This is a weakness that the Eagles must exploit this week on offense.
  • Stop the run: The Giants have the best running game in the league, so Adrian Peterson was just a warm-up for the 3-headed monster of Jacobs, Ward and Bradshaw that the Birds will face on Sunday. The run D actually did a phenomenal job on Peterson on 19 of his 20 carries, in which he only ran for 43 yards or just over 2 yards/carry. Unfortunately, on that other rush he gained 40 yards and a touchdown, galloping nearly untouched (except by the ref) to the endzone. The D MUST shut down the run, or at least slow it down, if they want to get off the field and keep the Giants from the endzone. This means no 7 or 8 yard runs on 1st down, as was too often the case in both Redskins games, and in the first Giants game when Jacobs averaged nearly 6 yards/carry. Fortunately, without Plaxico, teams have learned that they can take the Giants passing game a bit less seriously and stack the box if necessary. If the Giants win, it will be on the shoulders of the RBs, not Eli, so the focus must be on plugging their run game.

This isn't rocket science, obviously, it's the same stuff we've been looking to see for the past month and a half. The Giants game will be no easy feat, and to be perfectly honest, if the Eagles show up and play a tough, hard-fought game (i.e. not the Skins performance) but ultimately lose by a field goal or so, I would consider this season pretty damn successful. Not that I'm OK with a loss, and I think they are more than capable of advancing to the NFC championship and beyond, but I still can't help but be a little in awe of the fact that they've gotten as far as they have, given the inconsistency and disappointing performances that were sprinkled throughout the season. Still, let's see if they can silence the rowdy Meadowlands crowd this weekend and terminate the postseason for the defending champs, and make a return to the NFC championship that used to be so familiar to us Eagles fans.

Finally... here's a little bit of Chris Clemons' latest awesomeness for your viewing enjoyment. Glad to see the offseason acquisitions of him and Asante Samuel are paying off nicely.