Week 12: Any hopes the Eagles had of winning the NFC East – as miniscule as they are – were dashed when the 7-4 N.Y. Giants trounced the Packers, 38-10, Sunday night. Last week, several players spoke about that chance as something to hang their hats on. A Giants loss coupled with an Eagles victory would pull them to within two games of the division leaders. With games against all three divisional rivals still remaining – the 5-6 Cowboys next Sunday, the 5-6 Redskins three weeks later and the season finale against the Giants – there would be some hope.
But the Eagles missing the playoffs is now all but academic. Most fans have moved on anyway, already looking ahead to a likely coaching search and the draft. Only three other teams, by the way, have less wins than the Eagles through Sunday’s games – the 1-10 Chiefs, the 2-9 Jaguars and the 2-8 Panthers. If the Birds lose tonight, they will have as many wins as the Raiders, Browns and Panthers.
As for the game, the Eagles will be without Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy, both sidelined with concussions. Nick Foles will make his second straight start and will likely finish the rest of the season at quarterback. With Vick not likely back next season, the Eagles need to see what they have in the rookie. If Foles continues his struggles down the stretch, Howie Roseman and a new coach will have to look for a quarterback elsewhere, or at least one to compete with Foles in 2013.
The Eagles will have trouble getting a full read on Foles because of a battered offensive line. The unit will have its hands full tonight against a Panthers front four that is especially strong on the outside. Left tackle King Dunlap will face off against defensive end Charles Johnson (8-1/2 sacks) and right tackle Dennis Kelly will see a lot of Greg Hardy (seven sacks) on the other side. Kelly, who started two games at guard, looked more comfortable at tackle last week.
Foles was blitzed often by the Redskins. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is likely to try to apply as much pressure. McDermott hasn’t blitzed as much with the Panthers as he did in two seasons with the Eagles.
Bryce Brown will get his first career start at running back in place of McCoy. The rookie has been a pleasant surprise this season, although he has gotten only limited carries. Tonight’s game is a good chance for the Eagles to see if he’s a viable No. 2 option going forward.
The Eagles defense has been terrible since Todd Bowles took over for Juan Castillo. The numbers tell the story: Opposing quarterbacks were held to a 52.7 completion percentage in the first six games with Castillo; they’ve completed 78.4 percent of their passes during Bowles’ four games in charge.
The defense has gotten worse on third down (opposing offenses have had a 45.7 success rate against Bowles; they were 29.1 pct. against Castillo) and in the red zone (63.6 pct. to 35 pct.). The Eagles had seven interceptions in their first six games; they’ve had zero since. They allowed 19.7 points a game under Castillo; 26.5 since.
The Eagles offense has had injuries this season, but the defense doesn’t have that excuse.
The Panthers offense that was so explosive with rookie Cam Newton last season has been pedestrian a year later. Opposing defenses have figured out Carolina’s read option rushing attack. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who both averaged 5.4 yards a carry last season, are averaging only 3.6 and 3.4 this season.
Newton can still get the ball downfield, and Panthers receiver Steve Smith is still a deep threat, so a shaky Eagles secondary must remain on its toes.
I foolishly picked the Eagles to beat the Redskins by two touchdowns last week. I can’t pick them again until they prove they can win. The bigger question tonight may be how fans react at Lincoln Financial Field. If the Panthers get ahead early it could get ugly.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Eagles 12.
What goes right: Fletcher Cox continues his progression and has another strong performance.
What goes wrong: Foles does little to suggest he’s the franchise quarterback of the future.
Week 12: Simply said, I cannot pick the Eagles until they prove they can win. And it’s not just the six-game losing streak, but the way they’ve lost that has been particularly revealing. This is a team that is regressing and failing to even play competitive football. That was not the problem during the first half of the season.
The offense will continue to struggle on Monday night. Foles is still adjusting to the NFL, and it doesn’t help that the offensive line seldom provides adequate pass protection. He needs to find a way to get the ball to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but his inability to find those two on the outside last week stalled the potential for big plays.
Brown should have a productive game rushing the ball, but I don’t anticipate he receives a high volume of carries. Still, his play should be encouraging to Eagles fans.
The Panthers have lost six games by six points or fewer, including last week’s overtime defeat to a tough Tampa Bay team. Despite their 2-8 record, they still keep games competitive. Their only blowouts this season came at the hands of the Manning brothers. Look for the Panthers to run the ball effectively against the Eagles defense and be judicious with their shots downfield.
An Eagles loss to a 2-8 team on national team would be the lowest point yet of the season, and would officially give the Eagles the dreaded eighth loss that owner Jeffrey Lurie warned against before the season. If the Eagles can somehow win playing seven first-year starters, it would be an encouraging sign for the team’s future -- but their mistakes of the past few weeks has likely made 2012 a lost season.
Prediction: Panthers 17, Eagles 13
What goes right: Foles and Brown both have encouraging performances. Cox and Vinny Curry record sacks.
What goes wrong: The offensive line still struggles, and the Eagles have trouble stopping Carolina’s rushing offense -- which includes quarterback Newton.