It’s easy to draw parallels between this year’s Eagles and last year’s Raiders. Both teams seemed like trendy Super Bowl picks until they lost their QBs right before the playoffs. On Christmas Eve last year, Derek Carr broke his fibula and just like that, the air was out of Oakland’s balloon; the hype was gone, a first round bye evaporated, and they lost a generally non-competitive wild card round matchup with the lowly Texans. Fortunately for Philadelphia, several factors point to them not just remaining competitive, but also making some serious noise come January.
For starters, the Eagles are in good hands with backup Nick Foles. The Raiders were forced to turn to the scrappy Matt McGloin, who took care of the ball but simply was not capable of anything more than being a game manager. Foles turned heads during his 2013 campaign when he threw for an ungodly 27 TDs and just two picks. Regression hit hard, but he still sports a solid 2 to 1 career touchdown-interception ratio. With the dearth of capable QBs around the league, having a guy like Foles in reserve is a luxury the Eagles were quite fortunate to have.
Additionally, as good as Carson Wentz was, a more traditional ground and pound style was always Philly’s bread and butter. The Eagles lead the league in time of possession and rank 8th in rushing play percentage, as well as 5th in yards per rush. Their stout defense complements this approach perfectly. They’re excellent across the board: 6th in opponent yards per rush, 6th in opponent yards per pass, and 4th in takeaways. These marks are strikingly similar to last year’s 13-3 Cowboys; Foles just needs to do his best Dak Prescott impression.
However, not everything is peaches and cream. A backup QB can look a lot better if his targets can scamper for yards after the catch. Philly lost Darren Sproles, their primary receiving threat out of the backfield, to an ACL tear. This is especially detrimental in that it compromises Foles’ safety valve should the defense blanket all his prior reads. It might make more sense to have the back pass blocking in order to keep Foles as poised as possible. He does have some running ability should the pocket collapse entirely, but he pales in comparison to Wentz’s Houdini acts in the face of pressure. Fortunately, the Eagles weren’t a team that overly relied on big pass plays. Short, crisp routes will be Foles’ best friend.
Philly’s also in a much better spot with regard to the standings than Oakland was last year. The Raiders had dropped both games to the rival Chiefs, and thus were at risk of losing the divisional tiebreaker — and the first round bye — all along. The Eagles have no such pitfalls, as they’ve already clinched the bye. They’ve already beaten two likely playoff teams on the road in the Rams and Panthers; a potential rematch would be in the Bird Nest. This is crucial because Philly has an absurd +19.8 average scoring margin at home this year. Their primary competition, the Vikings, are over a touchdown behind at +12.1.
Much like Philadelphia, Minnesota relies immensely on their defense. QB Case Keenum has had a career year, much like Foles did in 2013. However, at just 21st in yards per rush, Minnesota’s not nearly as effective on the ground. In theory, they lack Philly’s ability to lasso a lead & hold onto it, thus putting less pressure on Foles should the Birds fall behind. Despite their excellent defense, the Vikes also lack premier ball-hawking prowess, ranking 22nd in takeaways. This is another feather in Foles’ cap; he should feel comfortable in the pocket knowing that the odds of making a game-breaking mistake are relatively slim.
In the meantime, the best thing the Eagles can do for themselves is secure home field. They need just one more win or a Vikings loss. We’ve seen far worse QBs than Foles in the Super Bowl (cough cough Rex Grossman). The perceived death knell of Wentz’s injury might be ringing a bit too soon.
*Photo credit: Chris Szagola | AP PHOTO