NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA – The question of whether the Philadelphia Eagles made progress in Chip Kelly’s second season as head coach will be hard to answer definitively.

If they beat Washington on Saturday and the New York Giants in the season finale Dec. 28, the Eagles will finish 11-5. That will be one victory better than last season's 10-6 team. But the 2013 team won the NFC East title and earned a home playoff game. If the Dallas Cowboys win out, the Eagles could find themselves missing the playoffs all together.

Is that progress or a step back? Kelly didn’t really answer the question, but he made something of a case for the view that missing the playoffs is all that really counts.

“Right now, we’ve only got nine wins,” Kelly said Wednesday. “I mean, for us to think of questions like that, that doesn't help us beat Washington. So I don't really think about it. If we win 11 games and it's not good enough to get in, shame on us because we didn't win the right games. That’s the bottom line. That's what this whole deal is all about and we know it going in.”

That’s undeniable. The Eagles are 9-5. All five losses are to NFC teams that are, or were at the time of the game, in the NFC playoff field. In short, the Eagles lost to the teams they would have possibly faced in the postseason. That doesn’t support the argument that they should be outraged if they go 11-5 and somehow miss the postseason.

“All we can do is get to 11-5 and believe that somehow, some way, that will be enough to get us into the playoffs,” tight end Zach Ertz said.

So there is little reason to believe the Eagles will take Washington (3-11) lightly when they play Saturday. The Eagles beat their NFC rival back in September, but it was 37-34. It was not an easy victory.

“Right now, there is no such thing as struggling to get up for a game,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We need to win. Bad. So it won’t take much motivation. It’s not like we have our playoff seed locked in and we’re the No. 1 seed and we’re resting starters. We’re fighting for everything we’ve got right now.”

It sounds like Kelly’s message for the week has gotten through.

“What we can do is control how we prepare for Washington and that's what we're going to do,” Kelly said. “They [the players] were great yesterday; they came in here ready to play. That's what I know about this group. They love playing football, they love training for it and they were fantastic yesterday and they’re going to be the same today.”

If they’re fantastic Saturday, that will be even better.
PHILADELPHIA -- Two years ago, the future looked grim for the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid's team was in the middle of a 4-12 meltdown of a season. The NFC East looked to be in other hands.

The New York Giants were the defending Super Bowl champions for the second time in five years.

And in Washington, a rookie quarterback named Robert Griffin III was taking his team to an NFC East title and what appeared to be supremacy in the division for years to come.

Two years later, the Eagles are the defending NFC East champions. They will face Griffin Saturday, but only because Colt McCoy was injured Sunday.

Nevertheless, they know Griffin is a quarterback capable of beating them and putting an end to their postseason hopes.

"Last week, he was playing a lot more confident and loose than he had earlier in the year," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It looks like the time off has done his legs good. He's moving pretty well. A lot more confidence in his throws, a lot more decisive. The pressure's off him. He looks a lot better than he did earlier in the year."

The Eagles played Washington way back in Week 3. Kirk Cousins was the starting quarterback for Washington in that game. Cousins completed 30 of 48 passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw one interception, to Jenkins.

Cousins played well, but the Eagles won that game, 37-34. This time, they run into a Washington team that is playing out the string. All except for Griffin, who appears to be playing for his future, whether that is in Washington or elsewhere.

"We expect to get his best," Jenkins said. "This is his opportunity at the end of the year to put some good tape out there."

A week ago, a mobile quarterback named Russell Wilson tore the Eagles' defense up. Griffin is capable of doing the same kinds of things, even if his team hasn't built its offense around his abilities.

"If you sleep on that guy? Trust me," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "You guys will be sitting there after the game going, 'He ran for 100 yards against you. How'd that happen?' That kid's athletic as heck. He can really run. We have to understand where he is on every single play.

"RG III can really hurt you with his legs and with his arm. We have to be really sharp. He's a different element than we've seen -- except for Russell Wilson, and you saw what happened. We did a really good job at times defending Seattle and all of a sudden, Russell just extended plays."

The Eagles' defense struggled with Cousins in the first game. Griffin is a very different player, but he presents even more of a challenge.

"He's still a dynamic player," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He really looked like he benefited from a little bit of perspective in taking a step back and looking at it. He came out there with a little more confidence and that old swagger you saw. He ran the ball more aggressively, he put the ball on the money, he threw the ball a little more accurately, and it looked like he had a better understanding. So, I think he has gained a little bit of perspective from sitting back and watching for a little bit."
PHILADELPHIA -- It will take a pair of first-round draft picks to replace Trent Cole, a former fifth-round pick, and there's no guarantee they'll do as well.

Brandon Graham, the Eagles' 2010 first-round pick, will start Saturday at Washington. It will be the first time Graham has started a game since the 2012 season. Marcus Smith, the Eagles' first-round pick this season, will rotate with Graham and Connor Barwin at the two outside linebacker spots.

"I'm looking forward to it," Graham said. "It's one of those things, when a man goes down, you want to bring the same intensity, if not more, during the game."

Cole broke a bone in his hand late in Sunday's loss to Dallas. He still hadn't decided whether to have surgery on the hand as of Tuesday afternoon. But the Eagles were preparing to be without him. That meant opportunities for Graham, who has 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in a backup role this season, and for Smith.

After Smith failed to outperform Cole or Barwin during training camp, he was moved to inside linebacker in September. The Eagles had a need for depth there because of injuries to Mychal Kendricks, Najee Goode and Travis Long. Smith was unable to move ahead of backup inside linebackers Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, but was needed on the inside even more when veteran DeMeco Ryans tore his Achilles tendon.

Now Smith is moving back to his more natural position. He believes the time on the inside will help him out there.

"It helps you a lot," Smith said. "Now that I moved back to outside, playing inside really helped me a lot. I've been playing inside linebacker the whole season, and now I have to go back to the outside. I just tried to get better each and every day. That's what I've been doing the whole season."

On the inside, Smith learned to see the offensive alignment from a wider perspective. He had to read it and learn to make defensive calls based on what he saw.

On the outside, he's able to focus more narrowly on what's right in front of him. It's a more instinctive position.

"Playing outside, you just see things from one side of the field," Smith said. "Once you know the inside position, you can see it a lot easier. It's also run and gun. You just hit the ball carrier as hard as you can."

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis acknowledged that changing positions slowed Smith's development. But the simple truth is that, if Smith had distinguished himself at outside linebacker, he would have been on the field at that position somehow. Cole and Barwin are two of the Eagles' better defensive players, but first-round picks tend to get the benefit of the doubt.

Smith said he learned to live with the expectations and the questions about why he wasn't playing. One of the people who helped him was Graham, who went through all of that himself. Like Cole, he had to make the transition from defensive end in the Eagles' old 4-3 scheme to outside linebacker in Davis' 3-4.

"I'm excited to go out there and show what I can do," Graham said. "We're going to go out there as a whole defense and just wreak havoc. At the end of the day, I'm ready for whatever. Like I told Marcus, be ready. I think it's one of those things where Marcus is going to get his shot. I'm happy for him, too."
PHILADELPHIA -- Mark Sanchez didn't know Sunday night whether he would still be the Eagles' starting quarterback in their next game, which is Saturday at Washington.

Nick Foles' status was going to be determined by an examination of his fractured collarbone on Monday morning. Foles was not cleared to play, and Sanchez will start this week. There is a good chance Sanchez will start the following week against the Giants at his old stomping grounds, the Meadowlands.

You might think the uncertainty, and the sense that Eagles fans are beginning to appreciate Foles more the longer he's out, would be taking a toll on Sanchez. But you would be wrong.

"It comes with the territory," Sanchez said Tuesday. "That's part of the deal when you sign up for this position. If you can't handle it, then don't play. Go do something else. But I love it -- win, lose or draw. I love this team. This is one of the best times of my life. This is going to be really fun for us the next couple of weeks."

With back-to-back losses to Seattle and Dallas, the Eagles fell out of the NFC playoff picture. To get back into it, they'll need to win against both Washington and New York. For Sanchez, those are the last two games on his one-year contract with the Eagles. He can buy some more time here by helping this team get into the playoffs.

"By the time we hit the field today, you can't be carrying any of that baggage from last week," Sanchez said. "Or it really affects performance. We've got to shake off a two-game skid and move on. These next two games are going to be even more important than the last two. We can't do anything about it, except learn and move on and get better."

It seemed as if Sanchez had an opportunity to claim the starting job once Foles went down. After all, Foles did just that last year while filling in for the injured Michael Vick. After these last two losses, though, the Eagles are 3-3 in the six games Sanchez has started. If there was an opportunity there to seize the job, it seemed to be lost.

Now there is at least one, and perhaps two, more chances. Sanchez wants to win these games, but not because of that, he said.

"We've been back and forth a little bit," Sanchez said. "I'm not worried about what kind of message I'm sending externally. I'm worried about the guys in the locker room. What are we doing to win these games? What are we doing for each other? Are we going to watch extra film? Are we going to try to fix what's been going wrong.

"As far as me and my stock and all that, I don't care. That really doesn't matter. I just want to win some games."

QB snapshot: Mark Sanchez

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
A quick observation of quarterback Mark Sanchez and how he played in the Eagles' 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15:

Sanchez took responsibility for the Eagles’ deflating loss to the rival Cowboys on Sunday night. He might have been a bit hard on himself. Sanchez didn’t give up 38 points, after all, but it is true the Eagles aren’t getting the kind of quarterback play they did last season.

They weren’t getting it from Nick Foles earlier this season, for that matter. Sanchez doesn’t take as many deep shots as Foles, which the coaches say is a result of how defenses are playing the Eagles more than a reflection on Sanchez. And Sanchez threw two more interceptions against Dallas, giving him nine for the season.

Sanchez might have been a bit harsh in his self-assessment, but he does need to clean things up for Saturday’s game at Washington.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles are preparing to be without outside linebacker Trent Cole when they play at Washington Saturday afternoon.

"There's still some decisions that have to go on in Trent's camp," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Tuesday. "I don't think so. I don't know for sure. I think he'll be back the next week if he's not in there."

Cole fractured a bone in his hand during the Eagles' loss to the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night. He has to decide whether to have surgery on the hand or let it heal on its own.

If Cole can't play, Brandon Graham would start at the "predator" outside linebacker spot usually manned by Cole.

"We have the utmost confidence in BG and his ability to go in there," Davis said. "He plays 25 to 30 snaps a game. He's doing a great job with it. Our rotation will be a little more limited."

Davis said first-round pick Marcus Smith will move back to outside linebacker. The Eagles moved Smith from outside to inside because of injuries to Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Najee Goode and Travis Long. Smith has seldom played on defense since moving to the inside.

"Out of necessity, we had to move him," Davis said of Smith. "It did not benefit him and his progress. We set him back by moving him inside, but we needed that because of all the injuries we had inside. It's a credit to him that he's got the mental and physical capability to go inside and learn. Now he didn't overtake anybody, because he's never been in there. But now, that's something we can use as a plus instead of a minus."

Bryan Braman, who is a key special teams player, could also play outside linebacker.

If it's only a matter of one game without Cole, then Braman would probably back up Graham. If Cole were to be unable to play through a playoff run, it's more likely Davis would push to get Smith ready.

"He's got to get the rust off," Davis said. "His development has been stifled a little bit by what we had to do. In the long run, I think he'll benefit from this move."

As for the long term, Davis said he's not sure whether Smith will play inside or outside.

"I would say outside first," Davis said. "But I still think the jury's out on him."
PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Eagles' 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys had an impact beyond the ways it hurts the team's playoff chances. The game was also an unwelcome first for Chip Kelly.

Up until Sunday night, Kelly’s Eagles had been making steady and impressive progress. They had avoided disappointment and, even more important, steps in the wrong direction.

Last season, they suffered an ugly loss in Minnesota, but that didn’t do much to their postseason prospects. The team bounced back immediately with a decisive win at home against the Chicago Bears, then it went to Dallas for that season-ending, division title-clinching victory over the Cowboys.

This season started with success and kept moving in that direction. The Eagles lost some tough games, but none was really confidence shaking. And the Eagles managed to bounce back after each of those losses with a victory that seemed to get them back on the trail to the NFC playoffs.

Then came Sunday.

A week after an unpleasant loss to Seattle, the Eagles had a chance to sweep the Cowboys and get a stranglehold on the NFC East race. That would have meant the chance for a 12-4 record and an opportunity to get some revenge on one of the NFC teams that defeated them earlier in the season. It made Sunday’s game the biggest of the season for the Eagles.

Last year, they went to Dallas and won that game. On Sunday, they ran out of the tunnel at the Linc and got whipped.

In fairness, the Eagles were playing without quarterback Nick Foles and defensive leader DeMeco Ryans. Take the signal-callers on both sides of the ball away from most teams and there will be consequences. It is a credit to Kelly and his team that they appeared unfazed by those injuries. The team just kept playing well, so the outside world wasn’t cutting any slack.

Still, there was a sense that Kelly had the answers for every occasion the Eagles have faced in the last two years. That sense disappeared with the Eagles’ 24-21 lead in the third quarter of Sunday’s game. That doesn’t mean Kelly isn’t a good coach or that the Eagles can’t make progress from this point on. It just means that Kelly was batting 1.000 in his two seasons before his team struck out against the Cowboys.

The Eagles play again on Saturday. There isn’t much time to process what happened Sunday night, and that might be a good thing. Kelly certainly started shifting the players’ focus to the Washington game within minutes of the final gun. He continued to do that on Monday.

”I think they know what the task is at hand,” Kelly said. “We’ve got no wiggle room in one direction or another and our focus should be on Washington. But I haven't been around a lot of them today. Some guys are kicking around now for treatment, but we'll meet again tomorrow morning at 8:30 and get going.”

There isn’t much else to do.
PHILADELPHIA – After spending the offseason not upgrading their personnel at cornerback, the Philadelphia Eagles find themselves with few options going into Week 16 of the regular season.

That is why Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams will start Saturday at Washington. Fletcher had coverage on all three of Dez Bryant’s touchdown catches in Sunday night’s game against Dallas. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis switched Williams to Bryant’s side late in the game.

[+] EnlargeBradley Fletcher
Bill Streicher/USA TODAY SportsBradley Fletcher's woes against Dez Bryant weren't because of a lack of effort, coach Chip Kelly said.
“There will be no further moves in the starting rotation,” head coach Chip Kelly said, when asked about potential changes in the secondary.

Asked why he wouldn’t consider a change with Fletcher, who also struggled in losses to Green Bay and Seattle, Kelly said, “I've seen Fletch compete. I think he gives you everything he has and the one thing I like about Fletch is that he's going to compete out there. He made a bad turn once on the ball. The other ball, I think if you look at it really, it was a perfect football thrown by Tony [Romo] and a great route run by Dez, and getting matched up with one of the best in the league: a big, tall, physical receiver and that's a tough matchup for anybody. But we still have confidence in Bradley and he's going to be our corner this Saturday.”

There are two candidates to replace one of the starting cornerbacks: slot cornerback Brandon Boykin and dime corner Nolan Carroll.

Carroll, the one veteran cornerback added last offseason, was said to be competing for a starting job in training camp.

“He got injured a little bit, missed some time and then we started to get settled in,” Kelly said. “He's such a valuable person for us in our dime personnel in terms of what we are doing there and we are in a lot more dime than we are in nickel now because of the loss of DeMeco [Ryans].

“Just like we consider Boykin a starter, we consider Nolan a starter because of how much we are in that scheme.”

Boykin has not been as solid as he was last season in his role in the slot. There is little reason for Kelly or defensive coordinator Bill Davis to move Boykin outside, where he’d be matched up with taller receivers.

The real issue is that the Eagles didn’t prioritize the secondary during the offseason after having the worst pass defense in the NFL. They used their first-round draft choice on linebacker Marcus Smith, who has barely played and has been moved from outside to inside linebacker.

Three cornerbacks were taken in the first round after the Eagles’ original pick, which was 22d overall. They were Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard (Cincinnati), TCU’s Jason Verrett (San Diego) and Ohio State’s Bradley Roby (Denver).

Roby has started two games for the Broncos, who have Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. as starters. The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Roby has two interceptions and a sack this season.

Verrett moved into the San Diego Chargers’ starting lineup midway through the season. He was placed on injured reserve after injuring a shoulder. Before the injury, the 5-9, 190-pound Verrett had one interception and started four games.

Dennard has not yet started in Cincinnati’s talent-laden secondary. The 5-11, 202-pound Dennard has played in every game and has one quarterback sack.

None of those three are above 6-foot tall, which the Eagles prefer in their cornerbacks. But all three have played more than Smith, and all play a position of obvious need for the Eagles.

The Eagles drafted two defensive backs this year, cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins of Florida and safety Ed Reynolds of Stanford. Reynolds, a sixth-round pick, is on the practice squad. Watkins, a fourth-rounder, has dressed for three games this season.

Eagles need help to reach playoffs

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
PHILADELPHIA -- Destiny left town with the Dallas Cowboys.

Seventeen days after taking control of their own playoff destiny with a 33-10 victory in Dallas, the Philadelphia Eagles gave it away. Their 38-27 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday night left the Eagles on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. Getting back in will require a little help from other teams.

The Eagles (9-5) are behind the Cowboys (10-4) in the NFC East. They are also behind several teams that are in the NFC wild-card race.

In the NFC West, Arizona (11-3) leads Seattle (10-4) by a game. Philadelphia lost to both teams, so the Eagles would have to finish with a better record than whichever team falls back into a wild-card spot.

In the NFC North, Green Bay and Detroit are tied at 10-4. The Eagles lost to the Packers, and thus would lose the tiebreaker there as well. With an 8-2 record against conference opponents, the Lions also have the tiebreaker edge on the Eagles, who have a 5-5 record in NFC games.

“I’m not looking at the standings,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “I’m just frustrated we let a game get away from us. We knew going into the week this was really important, and we didn’t get it done.”

Coach Chip Kelly likes to say that it’s important not to let the same team beat you twice. That means the Eagles have to get over this loss in time to beat Washington on Saturday and then finish with a victory over the New York Giants. That would get them to 11-5 and give them a chance.

The easiest way would be for Dallas to lose one of its final two games, against Indianapolis or Washington. Winning their last two games would put the Eagles back into first place in the NFC East because they have a superior record against division opponents.

In the wild-card race, the Eagles could finish ahead of Seattle, Green Bay or Detroit if the Eagles win out and any of those teams lose each of their final two games. Seattle faces Arizona and St. Louis. Green Bay plays Tampa Bay and Detroit. The Lions play both remaining games on the road, against Chicago and then Green Bay.

“All I know is we have to win next week,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “I don’t know what the scenario is, but obviously we wanted to get the win today to control our destiny. All I know is we have to win next week and we have to find a way to do that.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Reality, which the Philadelphia Eagles seemed to defy over the past couple months, finally bit them hard Sunday.

The Eagles were in first place in the NFC East despite leading the NFL in turnovers. On Sunday, four turnovers contributed heavily to their 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles were 9-4 despite a secondary that looked positively flammable at times. Against the Cowboys, Dez Bryant set fire to the Eagles’ defense. Bryant caught three touchdown passes from Tony Romo, all against cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Wilcox
James Lang/USA TODAY SportsJ.J. Wilcox's third-quarter interception handed the Eagles a severe blow in their bid to rally on Sunday.
The Eagles controlled their playoff destiny despite losing starting quarterback Nick Foles to a broken collarbone in Week 9. Mark Sanchez stepped in and won a couple of important games, including a 33-10 decision in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. But Sanchez’s habit of throwing interceptions finally caught up to the Eagles. He threw two picks to help the Cowboys protect their lead.

With losses to Seattle and now Dallas, Chip Kelly’s Eagles surrendered their lead in the NFC East and found themselves in need of help to have a chance at the playoffs.

“I just told them, there are obviously two big games ahead of us,” Kelly said. “The only thing we need to worry about is just the next game ahead of us. You’re going to have to get to 11-5 and see if you get in, but you’re not going to get to 11-5 unless you go 10-5 first. The one thing we can control is the preparation for Washington, and that’s what we’ve got to get ready for.”

The Eagles play at Washington on Saturday afternoon. They should find out early in the short week of preparation whether Foles is cleared to return to action. If he is, Kelly will have to decide whether to stick with Sanchez or to put Foles back into the starting lineup.

“I have no idea [if he’ll start Saturday], but I need to clean up some mistakes and attack this thing like I do every week,” Sanchez said. “That’s with a positive attitude, learning from the previous week, learning from this game and being ready to play.”

An ill wind was blowing from the start in this one. It came from the north, but the Eagles didn’t seem prepared for it. When the opening kickoff came down near the Eagles’ 20-yard line, neither return man Josh Huff nor up back Brad Smith were close to the ball. Dallas safety C.J. Spillman fell on the live ball at the Eagles’ 18-yard line.

Five plays later, Dallas had a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray.

Whatever happened when these teams met in Dallas 17 days earlier would not apply in this game. Murray, stifled in Dallas, ran for two touchdowns. Bryant, a non-factor in Dallas, caught six passes for 114 yards and the three touchdowns. The Eagles’ up-tempo offense, which flitted up and down the field in Texas, got bogged down early.

The Eagles produced exactly zero yards on offense in the first quarter. Their three-and-outs put their defense back on the field quickly and gave the Cowboys all the momentum. Romo, whose sore back affected his play on Thanksgiving, moved smoothly and found open receivers all over the field.

“They out-executed us,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Tony Romo takes what you give him. We’re changing who we’re doubling and who we’re giving help to on every snap. So he goes to the guy that’s open. He really does spread the ball well. He recognizes coverages early and gets the ball into single coverage.”

Romo built a 21-0 lead before the Eagles found a way to get their offense running at all. After that, though, the Eagles scored 24 unanswered points. They took a 24-21 lead with 5:42 left in the third quarter.

“We got it rolling there for a while,” Sanchez said. “We put up 24 points straight. We got hot and guys were making plays, great catches, tons of time to throw and we got the running game going. Like I said, we turned the ball over and we hurt ourselves more than anything.”

Dallas answered the Eagles’ 24-point comeback with an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive. It ended with Murray’s second touchdown run of the game. It also set up a thrilling fourth quarter, as these two NFC East rivals traded punches.

Except the Eagles were out of punches. On their next possession, Sanchez threw off-target for tight end Zach Ertz. The ball was intercepted by Dallas safety J.J. Wilcox. Romo threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Bryant to make it 35-24. Another Sanchez interception and a fumble by tight end Brent Celek undermined the Eagles’ efforts.

These problems have been there all season -- turnovers, a shaky secondary, an inconsistent offense. The Eagles had been able to paper over those problems with their winning record.

On Sunday, against their most bitter rivals, it all came apart.

“You can’t put yourself behind 21-0 against a good football team and then expect that you can come back and win the game,” Kelly said. “We put ourselves in too big of a hole to start with and then got back up. Give us credit for getting back into it.”

They can take credit for that, if they like, but it’s not likely to help them get into the playoffs.

“I think we really just let some opportunities slip,” Sanchez said. “It’s unfortunate that we gave away some great opportunities. That’s the bottom line. We just got too far behind."
PHILADELPHIA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Eagles’ 38-27 loss to Dallas:

Fletcher alone: Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher was left alone to cover Dez Bryant on several plays. Why? “We didn’t need it last time,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, referring to the Eagles’ 33-10 victory in Dallas 17 days earlier. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he changed coverages, but Tony Romo seemed to spot Bryant every time he was singled up.

Celek hurting: Tight end Brent Celek wasn’t sure how the ball got knocked from his grasp, only that it happened. Celek lost a fourth-quarter fumble that ended an Eagles drive and helped the Cowboys add to their lead. “I’ve got to hold on to the ball,” Celek said. “There’s no excuse. I’ve just got to hold on to it.”

Sanchez in limbo: There is a chance Nick Foles could be cleared to return to practice this week. With the Eagles playing in Washington on Saturday, that would be a quick turnaround for a change at quarterback. Coach Chip Kelly would not address the possibility. Mark Sanchez said he had "no idea, but I need to clean up some mistakes and attack this thing like I do every week. That’s with a positive attitude.”
PHILADELPHIA – It was hard not to hear at least a trace of envy in Chip Kelly’s voice when he talked about how Russell Wilson “extends the down” by moving around and avoiding pressure. It is a quality Kelly values in his own quarterbacks but has had to live without for most of the last two seasons.

That’s a concern for the offseason. For this week, the Eagles have to deal with yet another opposing quarterback who can escape a good pass rush and find a receiver downfield. Such quarterbacks have given the Eagles trouble this season.

In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic against the Eagles. His mobility and his quick release were a lethal combination as the Packers rolled over the Eagles, 53-20.

In San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick had one of his best games of the season against the Eagles. Kaepernick completed 17 of 30 passes for 218 yards --unexceptional numbers augmented by his 58 yards on seven carries.

Carolina’s Cam Newton can make plays like that, as well. The Eagles held Newton in check, allowing just 6 yards on two carries. They also sacked Newton nine times and intercepted him three times.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Eagles were prepared to approach Tony Romo in similar fashion. But Romo was not moving nearly as well as he normally does. His back was clearly bothering him, and it affected everything he did.

“His movement [was affected], really,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “You saw in our game the movement of him going down right away -- and he has great escape ability, and you didn't see that in our game. You just saw him protecting himself a little bit and then in Chicago, you didn't.”

Last week, against the Bears, Romo completed 21 of 26 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 138.0, and the Cowboys scored 41 points. Romo didn’t run the ball, except for end-of-game kneel-downs, but he moved around like his normal self.

“You saw, `All right, here we go, let's run around, let's extend the down, let's make some plays,’ “ Davis said. “And I think we'll see the Tony Romo that we've always seen.”

To prepare for Romo two weeks ago, the Eagles planned for a disciplined pass rush. The idea was to keep Romo contained in the pocket and not get too far behind him. If the pass rush gets beyond the quarterback, Romo can simply slide into an open area and look for Dez Bryant or Jason Witten. All of his receivers are aware of what’s happening in the pocket and know to find an open spot once the quarterback is on the move.

For the Eagles, that means defensive backs also have to stick with a receiver once the play breaks down. It was the same drill last week against Wilson, who is faster and more likely to take off running. The Eagles did well some of the time against Wilson, but there were enough breakdowns to give Seattle the edge.

That led to a 24-14 loss, and to that note of envy in Kelly’s voice.

Cowboys vs. Eagles preview

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia TV: NBC

Just 17 days after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys 33-10 in Texas, the teams meet again in Philadelphia with the NFC East lead on the line.

It is almost as momentous as the teams’ second confrontation last season. That game, played in Dallas, decided the division winner on the final day of the regular season. The Eagles won that one 24-22, but Tony Romo was not able to play.

Romo will be at quarterback for the Cowboys this time. Mark Sanchez will be behind center for the Eagles. DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy are the marquee running backs. Two improved but still unproven defenses will be trying to establish their credentials with the playoffs hanging in the balance.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer, who covers the Cowboys, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, discuss the big rematch.

Phil Sheridan: The Eagles beat the Cowboys on Thanksgiving with Romo looking very uncomfortable after the short week and, it turned out, without taking a painkiller. A year ago, the Eagles beat the Cowboys to clinch the division in a game Romo didn’t play in. Are the Cowboys feeling like a healthier Romo will be the difference this time around? Are they right?

Todd Archer: Let me take this from the Thanksgiving Day angle first. The Cowboys and Romo believe things will be different in the second meeting. Not in the potential outcome, but in how they play. They won’t use the quick turnaround from a Sunday night game at MetLife Stadium to a Thursday afternoon game at AT&T Stadium as an excuse, but I’ll call it a reason. On a normal Thursday, Romo would be going through his first practice of the week. That time he had to play a game. And, for some reason, he chose not to take a painkilling injection before the game. He was not the same quarterback that day. Things weren't “firing” as he likes to say. Given the state of his back, he needs rest. He had a full week to get ready for the Chicago Bears and completed 81 percent of his passes and threw three touchdown passes. As for last year, the Cowboys were driving to win the game with their backup quarterback, Kyle Orton, late in the fourth quarter before he threw a pick. I think they feel confident about their chances. That doesn’t guarantee a win, but the Cowboys will not walk into Lincoln Financial Field with any fear.

I wasn’t thinking the NFC East would be on the line after the Eagles whipped the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but it is. Do you think the Eagles’ loss to Seattle does anything to bruise their confidence, or does the fact that these teams played such a short time ago and the Eagles won so easily help them?

Sheridan: I would see bruised confidence as a concern if not for the way these Eagles bounced back from that 53-20 abomination they played in Green Bay. They came back the next week and took care of Tennessee 43-24. Then they had the short week and the 33-10 win in Dallas. This team seems to maintain an even keel regardless of what happened the week before. So I do think they’ll file the Seattle game away and turn the page pretty quickly.

But I also think they did that with the Thanksgiving Day game. Everything went very well for the Eagles in that game. But they’re talking this week about how they expect a completely different Romo and a much more rested Dallas team. Winning the past two against Dallas has to boost their confidence, but I don’t think there’s much risk of overconfidence from this team. In that sense, a beating like the Seattle game helps keep the Eagles grounded.

The win over the Bears last week got the Cowboys over that eight-win hurdle. Is there a danger they’ll feel satisfied with that, or do you sense this team is really driven to win the division and get to the postseason?

Archer: That’s a good point, and we asked a ton of guys that very question. They all said the same thing: Getting past eight wins means nothing. For as young as this team is, I do believe it is pretty mature. All the Cowboys have guaranteed is a winning record. If they lose Sunday, then they could very well win the last two games, finish 11-5 and miss the playoffs. I don’t think they have any sense of accomplishment. A lot of these guys are playing for their futures, including coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys put a lot of people on make-good deals. Getting to nine wins is a start, but it’s not a finish. This team needs to get to the playoffs. Garrett needs to get to the playoffs. The Cowboys still have a lot to prove. Instead of playing a winner-take-all game in Week 17, which is what they have done the previous three seasons, they have it essentially in Week 15.

As you look back to the Thanksgiving game, what surprised you the most about what the Eagles were able to do offensively or defensively? To me, it was how the Eagles' front controlled the game.

Sheridan: That’s a very good place to start. In the locker room afterward, the offensive linemen were talking about how much it felt like last season, when McCoy led the NFL in rushing. The Eagles had their no-huddle tempo going as well as it has in two years. Having publicly picked Dallas to win, I have to say I was a bit surprised by all of that.

It’s funny, though. Because they scored 33 and won, the Eagles got away with some stuff. They went only 1-for-5 in the red zone, for example. They aren’t likely to get away with that in the rematch. And they probably can’t count on Romo just failing to see an open Dez Bryant, as he did a couple of times in that game.

So I guess the answer is, I was surprised the Eagles dominated so thoroughly, but I also feel they were a millimeter or two from not dominating at all.

On Thanksgiving, the Eagles did a very good job of getting their no-huddle offense into a rhythm. Do the Cowboys have any answers for that or for McCoy this time?

Archer: There is a sign on one of the walls at Valley Ranch that says: Do Your Job. I’m sure every team in the league has a sign that says something like that, but in the first meeting, the Cowboys had players trying to do everyone else’s job, and it hurt them. When they won at Philadelphia a year ago, they were able to hold McCoy to 55 yards on 18 carries. They need to do something like that Sunday. To do that, they must contain the edges. On the first play of the Thanksgiving game, they did it perfectly. For the rest of the day, not so much. The Cowboys have to stay disciplined. They know they can’t get out of their gaps or else McCoy will expose them. Of course, they knew this on Thanksgiving, and they didn’t do it. To me, McCoy makes everything go with the Eagles' offense. If he’s running it, the passing game clicks. If he can’t run it, the passing game suffers. For as well as Sanchez played in the first meeting, I still think the Cowboys want to see if he can beat them with his arm.

In Dallas, we like to say the game is always about the quarterback. With Sanchez, is this game about him or is it about Chip Kelly’s system?

Sheridan: It’s kind of about both, or about Sanchez playing within Kelly’s system. If Sanchez can do that the way he did it in Dallas, the Eagles will be fine and Sanchez could emerge as the quarterback here. If Sanchez gets as flustered as he did against Seattle Sunday, the Cowboys are going to have a fine day, and the Eagles will be lighting candles to hasten Nick Foles' return.

I think it will be interesting to see if Dallas takes any cues from the Seahawks’ approach. Seattle didn’t do anything the Eagles didn’t expect. The Seahawks just played their base defense very soundly and turned those fast players loose. The Eagles weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage at all against the Seahawks. Dallas can’t upgrade its front seven dramatically by Sunday, but there is probably a blueprint for how to disrupt the Eagles’ offense that can be adapted.

If the Cowboys can get Sanchez out of his comfort zone, however they go about it, they can change the nature of the game.

PHILADELPHIA -- Progress can’t always be charted in a straight line. That’s important to remember when looking at Mark Sanchez's season.

The Eagles quarterback played his worst game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Sanchez completed just 10 of 20 passes for 96 yards. A week earlier, Sanchez played perhaps his best all-around game against the Dallas Cowboys. He ran the Eagles’ up-tempo offense as efficiently as it has been run this season, completing 20 of 29 passes for 217 yards.

Sanchez will see that Dallas defense again Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

"You can’t expect the same exact Dallas team, energy-wise and enthusiasm-wise," Sanchez said Thursday. "They know what’s at stake. That last performance wasn’t really indicative of the kind of talent they have, the coaching and the players they have. We’re expecting to have a great matchup."

Sanchez’s performance in Dallas was part of the Eagles’ overall dominance of the Cowboys that day. He will have to play at a similarly high level for the Eagles to win this time. In effect, this will be Sanchez’s last regular-season opportunity to deliver in a big game. That will surely influence coach Chip Kelly’s decision when Nick Foles is cleared to play.

A couple weeks back, Sanchez said he was embracing his return to the starting lineup and intended to remain there. He was talking more about the long term than about the upcoming week, when Foles might be ready to play. But still, it raises the question of how prepared Sanchez is to return to the sideline if that’s Kelly’s call.

"I have no idea," Sanchez said. "That’s not really where my focus is at. I’m just preparing for a game on Sunday night, trying to help the team win."

After the Dallas game, it seemed possible that Kelly would want to keep the offense running at that level as the playoffs approach. But after the Seattle game, it seemed more likely that Foles would get the nod if he’s cleared to play at any time before the playoffs.

Asked specifically about Sanchez’s play Sunday, Kelly has said that no one played particularly well on the offensive side of the ball. There’s nothing definitive there, but it is clear that Kelly expects better quarterback play.

Sanchez has shown that he can deliver it at times. Sunday, he gets his last, best chance to impress the head coach.
PHILADELPHIA -- The questions for Mark Sanchez suggested an answer that Sanchez just wasn’t willing to give at this point in the season.

The questions centered on the big passing plays that were a staple for the Philadelphia Eagles in Chip Kelly’s first season. Those plays have virtually disappeared with the injury to Nick Foles, who broke his collarbone in Houston on Nov. 2. Of course, that means Sanchez is the logical reason for the decline in big plays, either because the play calling has changed or because Sanchez is making different decisions.

[+] EnlargeSanchez
AP Photo/Michael PerezIt appears that Mark Sanchez has been more secure with throwing shorter passes for the Eagles.
“We are calling the exact same plays,” Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said Tuesday. “I understand your line of questioning, and there’s nothing to do with who is playing quarterback, whether we are throwing it downfield or not.”

Against Seattle, Sanchez threw just two passes that traveled more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. One was an incompletion on a deep throw to Riley Cooper. The other resulted in Zach Ertz’s 35-yard touchdown catch.

“Some games, the deep things are open,” Sanchez said. “Some games, they’re covered. When they’re open, we’ll try to hit them. If not, we’ll get it down underneath.”

The throw to Cooper was not the right decision, Shurmur said, based on the coverage. Sanchez wound up overthrowing the receiver, who was double covered.

“We got away with some explosive plays [last season],” Shurmur said. “If you’ll remember, against Green Bay, we threw that same type of pass to DeSean [Jackson]. He went up and got it with two guys around him. Coop was in position to do the same thing. We just didn’t hit on it.”

Actually, Foles’ throw in Green Bay could very well have been intercepted. The ball bounced out of the defensive back’s hands and landed in Jackson’s arms for a touchdown. Foles threw another long touchdown pass to Cooper in that game. It was also similar, only Foles underthrew this one and Cooper came back for it. The defensive players didn’t realize the ball was coming.

So it’s not as if every big play last year was the result of a perfect play call executed perfectly by Foles and the rest of the offense. But it is just as true that Sanchez seems to opt for shorter throws when he has to make a choice.

“There are times when we call a deep-to-short concept where they cover it deep so you throw it shorter,” Shurmur said.

Foles was more likely to try for the deep ball, with only mixed success this season. Sanchez seems to prefer that surer, shorter throws when there is coverage in the area.

On Sanchez’s first play after replacing the injured Foles in Houston, he threw a deep post pattern to Jeremy Maclin for a 52-yard gain. That is still Sanchez’s longest completion of the season.

One possible explanation is that last year’s success prompted defenses to play the Eagles differently. Kelly said this week that the Eagles face more zone coverage this year than last year. That difference could explain Sanchez’s choice of shorter throws.

“Teams are staying true to what they do,” Maclin said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot of guys running free against man-to-man coverage this year. I think it’s a little mixture of both.”