After falling to 5-4 and out of first place, the Eagles have strung together four consecutive wins to regain the NFC Eastern Division lead. Considering that they face playoff contenders the last two games of the season, including a trip to Dallas, it is very important that the Eagles take care of business against the "also ran" 49ers. As they demonstrated Monday evening against the NFC reigning champion Arizona Cardinals, the Niners can pose a much greater threat than their 6-7 record might indicate.
Even if the Cowboys lose tonight against the undefeated New Orleans Saints, they can still finish at 10-6 defeating a struggling Redskins team and then the Eagles in the season finale. An Eagles loss tomorrow or the following week against the Broncos would set up the equivalent of a playoff game in Dallas as the winner will finish ahead of the other for the NFC East title or a playoff spot. A win tomorrow and next week would clinch the NFC East with a Cowboys loss tonight.
San Francisco has been particularly tough at home, but has won in Arizona and lost very close games in Minnesota, Houston, Indianapolis, Green Bay and Seattle. They are literally a few plays away from being a strong playoff contender. On Monday night, they dominated the Cardinals by forcing 7 turnovers while Frank Gore ran wild.
Intense coach Mike Singletary would like to use a similar formula against the Eagles, but will probably have less success consistently running the ball. Gore could hit a couple long runs, though, if he breaks through the box as the Eagles secondary is forced to make tackles. This will be fresh in everyone's mind as the Eagles are coming off possibly their worst tackling performance of the season last Sunday night against the Giants.
Singletary would love nothing more than to see his defense aggressively pursue the ball to get take-aways. Conversely, the Eagles are good at ball protection, so a repeat of the previous game is unlikely. Donovan McNabb will likely put the ball in the air to expose a vulnerable pass defense, but has been adept throughout his career at avoiding interceptions.
DeSean Jackson is coming off a spectacular game last week, and should be a focal point again this week with Jeremy Maclin sitting things out with Plantar Fascitis and Brian Westbrook still not cleared to play. McNabb will look for Jackson often, especially down the field. The Niners will try to limit him with double and triple coverage, so McNabb will find opportunities to hit Brent Celek and Jason Avant underneath.
The fact that the Niners can be tough against the run is just one more reason for Andy Reid to skew towards a heavy pass to run ratio. LeSean McCoy has been stifled the past two weeks, but Leonard Weaver has nicely picked up the slack, so expect to see both runners rotate throughout the game. Michael Vick is starting to find his legs and will likely be used more, especially in the passing game.
The Eagles defense is coming off a poor performance that is pause for concern. They surrendered more than 500 yards and 38 points after almost pitching a shutout the week before. Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott is surely going to want to get the team back on track and hopes that last week was more an aberration than a true indicator of ability. Shoddy tackling was the main culprit, so wrapping up was a key theme on the practice field.
Former #1 draft pick Alex Smith is back behind center after being removed last season for poor play. The time watching from the sidelines appears to have done him good as he is playing much better. He has a quick release and is best in the short to medium passing game. The Eagles would like to get into his face to create a couple turnovers, but he will counter by hitting short strikes to tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Both were high draft picks (6th and 10th, respectively) and are flashing the type of ability that had scouts drooling over them. Davis leads all tight ends with 11 touchdowns.
The bad news for the Eagles is that they continue to very poor at covering tight ends, so Davis could have a huge game. He will have ample opportunity, especially with attention diverted by the explosive tandem of Gore and Crabtree.
This will be a hard fought game that could be determined somewhat by the weather. Today's snow storm is forecasted to taper off before game time, but there still will be a fairly stiff breeze. McNabb's arm strength and experience plays to the Eagles favor as well as their secondary's ball hawking style.
Expect McNabb, Jackson, Celek and company to keep the points coming, while their defense picks off a couple Smith passes. In between, Gore and Davis will keep the Niners close.