Monday, December 21, 2009

Eagles Clinch Playoff Berth, Now Focus on East Title

Eagles vs. Niners

On the "frozen tundra" of Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles braved the elements to defeat the San Francisco 49ers 27-13. The Eagles seized control of the game early, fell into a lull in the 3rd quarter, but then finished strong to register their 5th consecutive win. The victory, along with the Cowboys upset in New Orleans on Saturday night, assured the Eagles of a playoff spot. Their attention now goes towards winning the NFC Eastern Division title and potentially grabbing the 2nd conference seed.

Once again the Birds were led by Donovan McNabb and DeSean Jackson, but this time, their defense returned to form. Overall, the team did a better job of wrapping up on tackles, but most importantly they pressured Quarterback Alex Smith into 3 interceptions and maintained tight pass coverage. Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore was able to rack up 107 yards rushing, but some of this was due to the Eagles often deploying only two linebackers in favor of using a defensive back to cover tight end Vernon Davis. It was a trade-off they were willing to make to avoid Davis chewing up big chunks of yardage in the passing game.

Quintin Demps got the Eagles off to a good start by returning the opening kickoff 48 yards. McNabb took over from there and five plays later found Jackson in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown strike. Holding a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter, Andy Reid strangely elected to go for it on 4th and 1 at his own 29, but the Eagles failed. They dodged the proverbial bullet when Sheldon Brown forced a fumble at the 8 yard line that was pounced on by Asante Samuel. McNabb then engineered a long drive, highlighted by a 43 yard connection to Brent Celek and culminating with his own 8-yard scamper into the end zone.

By now, the Birds defense was getting a lot of heat on Smith and Samuel took advantage to pick off his 8th interception of the season. The Eagles turned this into a short field goal after they stalled on the four to make it 17-3. After McNabb lost another scoring opportunity by tossing an interception in the end zone, Tracy White got the ball back two plays later when he stepped in front of another Smith pass to grab the defense's 3rd INT in the half. They settled for another short field goal when Leonard Weaver wasted their last chance to take a shot in the end zone by arguing with a Niners player.

Fiery coach Mike Singletary must have given his young team an earful at half-time as they played with greater intensity in the third quarter. A long kickoff return and a couple Smith passes got them in range for a field goal to cut the lead to 20-6. After an ill advised McNabb pass was intercepted, Smith went 4-4, including a 12-yard TD pass to Josh Morgan.

The Eagles offense finally got going again to start the fourth quarter when McNabb hit Jackson with a 59-yard pass to get into the red zone and set-up LeSean McCoy's short touchdown run. Other than a 44-yard pass interference penalty against Sean Jones, the Eagles turned up the pressure on Smith to shut them out the rest of the way.

Despite the 49ers intent on shutting him down, Jackson again proved that is almost impossible as he grabbed 6 passes for 140 yards. Weaver and McCoy hit the holes to keep the chains moving, combining for 100 yards. And, although he threw a couple passes to the team in red, the fact that McNabb threw for over 300 yards on a cold, blustery day should not be overlooked. He extended plays with his feet and possesses the requisite arm strength to enable the team to stick with an ariel attack in less than ideal conditions.

The most encouraging aspect of the game, though, was the play of the defense. Coming off a dismal performance a week earlier when they were torched for more than 500 yards and 38 points, they looked much more like the unit that has periodically flashed dominance this year and was considered a strength coming into the year. With the offense looking to be potentially the NFL's most explosive and now able to complement that with a methodical attack as well, the key to post season success will be the play of the defense.

Last evening, the Minnesota Vikings were soundly defeated by the struggling Charlotte Panthers to drop their record to 11-3. The events of the day opened up the possibility of the Eagles stealing away a first round bye, although it would probably require them to run the table against two teams that currently would make the playoffs if the season ended today. They would need the Vikings to lose, but considering Brett Favre's ongoing historical difficulties down the stretch and his possible power struggle with the head coach, the probability has gone up.

The team and Philly fans have good reason to be optimistic, but the challenges get stiffer from here. Both the Broncos and Cowboys will be fighting to make the playoffs (and the latter likely to win the NFC East.) If Dallas can beat the last place Redskins next week, the season finale sets up as the NFC Eastern Division championship game. Coming off their most impressive outing of the year against the Saints on Saturday night, that appears likely.

Once they get into the post season, the playoff field looks particularly strong. As it stands now, the Saints are 13-1, the Vikings have faltered of late but are considered to be the most talented, the Packers have been on a roll, the Cardinals are NFC defending champs, and the Cowboys are the Cowboys. And, of course, the AFC favorites are the undefeated Colts. All of this is to simply highlight that if the Eagles hope to realize their goal of a Super Bowl win, they will need their defense to play at a consistently high level to go along with the offense and special teams. Yesterday was one step forward against a team that is better than its record.

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