Eagles Have What It Takes in NFC East

Friday, May 29, 2009

When the Philadelphia Eagles take the field this season they will be viewed as a contender for not only the NFC East Division title, but as a possible NFC champion.

So much should be expected after coming off a late season push for the playoffs that included a dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys at home in the season finale, a hard-fought victory on the road against the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional round and fighting tooth and nail in the NFC Championship game.

Did the Eagles take advantage of some misfortunes in other NFL cities to get that far? Absolutely, but coming off of this offseason, with some quality free agent acquisitions and roster moves, and a well-received draft, there is reason for heightened optimism in Philadelphia for the boys in green.

Head coach Andy Reid still has control of the team and has some new weapons to account for in his creative schemes. Fans in Philadelphia have been clamoring for a return to the run game for years, and they might get their way in 2009. The addition of Leonard Weaver at fullback would be the first indication of that.

Don't expect Brian Westbrook to rush for 2,000 yards or any thing like that, but when the Eagles get in to third-and-short situations, the offense should be more likely to try and pound out the extra yard or two. In the past, the Eagles would have been very likely to run a play action pass in similar situations, but when the team rarely ran the ball up the middle, it proved difficult to catch the defense off guard.

Donovan McNabb will remain the biggest factor on offense. There still is no Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver in the deck of cards for McNabb to connect with, but Kevin Curtis, DeSean Jackson, and the emerging Jason Avant are collectively better than most wide receiver units in the league.

Diversity will be the key to the offense. Jackson can go deep or run a quick slant. Curtis can do the same. Avant has shown the ability to hold on to the ball over the middle. The growth of Brent Celek as a full-time starter at tight end will be important for McNabb. When receivers are not open McNabb, will need to rely on a steady tight end.

Brian Westbrook will be as dangerous as ever. Utilizing Westbrook in a variety of ways makes the Eagles offense one of the most dangerous in the league. Not only can Westbrook make moves out of the backfield, but he can also be a threat on the screen and will line up in a wide receiver's typical spot from time to time.

Naturally, the offense will only be as effective as the offensive line. Seeing two new faces on the line would make some fans weary, but the Eagles are replacing Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, who both anchored the offensive line for as long as many fans can remember, with Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews. With these two added to the mix, McNabb should have solid protection, and Westbrook should have room to cut through the pile more often than not.

It would seem that strength of the team would be the offense, but if the offensive line does not gel together the way Reid has envisioned the team could be in trouble. McNabb can still make something out of nothing but he is another year older so his mobility may drop slightly in 2009. The offense can lead the Eagles to success though.

In 2008 the Eagles had a top-10 offense, ranking sixth in points, and ninth in total yards. Combined with the defense, the Eagles were the top team in the league in the category of plus-minus yards. The defense was also very good last year.

And the defense should be good once again, although there are some question marks to address. First and foremost how will the Eagles respond to the loss of Brian Dawkins? Quintin Mikell and Quintin Demps both have something to prove in the secondary, but the leadership that Dawkins provided will be near-impossible to replace.

Look for Stewart Bradley to take on more of a role of team leader on the field and to develop in to one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Bradley will lead a defense that was ranked third in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed in 2008.

The success of the defense starts with the defensive line. Darren Howard and Trent Cole combined for 19 sacks in 2008 and Juqua Parker added five. Those numbers indicate that the Eagles will be able to muscle some pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. That could help Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown make some easier plays against opposing receivers.

Samuel lead the team with four interceptions in 2008. Sheldon Brown is chirping about his contract status so it will be interesting to see if it affects him on the field As the Eagles are not likely to render Brown a new deal before the season starts, a close eye should be kept on the cornerback.

Will he twiddle away like Lito Sheppard did a year ago in a similar situation or will he take his performance up a notch, and prove why he is worthy of a new deal? I anticipate Brown to be a tough competitor this season.

Showing the talent on paper is one thing—performing on the field is another. Too many times in 2008 did the Eagles fail to capitalize on some key plays to win a game, or prevent the opponent from winning the game. Realistically, the Eagles may only have been a couple plays away from clinching their first NFC East title since 2006.

The schedule this year seems to favor the Eagles for the most part, although the bye week comes in Week Four. Two west coast trips (Oakland first, San Diego last) sandwich a three game stretch of NFC East play. Playing in Oakland should be penciled in with a "W" right now, and you would be wise to pencil in an "L" for the San Diego game, as it comes after the three division games and it is on the road.

Following the San Diego game is a road trip to Chicago to play a Bears team that has stolen two games form the Eagles in the previous two years. Revenge should be on the mind. Overall, though, there is no real tough stretch on the schedule and the way the home and road games are set up the Eagles should be able to win 10 games at a minimum.

It will probably take 12 wins to clinch the NFC East outright. The Giants won the division last year with 12 wins, and the Cowboys did it with 13 the previous season. The Eagles actually took the division crown with 10 wins in the 2006 season.

The Giants should be about the same as they were last season without Plaxico Burress, which leaves their passing game with few threats. The Cowboys have parted ways with Terrell Owens, so it would seem Tony Romo's regular season performance will take a dip. The Washington Redskins? Well, they'll still be tough to beat, but they don't seem to have the makeup of a division contender right now.

NFC East bragging rights will likely come down to the Giants and Eagles in 2009. From the looks of where the teams stand right now it would seem that the Eagles may have the slight edge, although the Giants had a pretty good draft, and have a history of young players making a quick impact. Expect the December 13 meeting at Giants Stadium to give one of these teams the edge down the stretch.

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