Week 1: For the second straight season the Eagles open on the road at an opponent that is expected to finish near or at the bottom of its division. The Browns, in fact, could end the year with the worst record in the NFL. They’re ranked last in the AP Pro32, a poll of 12 NFL writers and broadcasters, heading into Week 1. (The Eagles are eighth.)
Cleveland will be starting its fifth opening day quarterback in five years. Brandon Weeden may be 28 and he may have shown signs that he can play in this league, but it’s too much to ask him to deliver a victory in his first career start. The same goes for ballyhooed rookie running back Trent Richardson. He had arthroscopic knee surgery a month ago and is expected to start, but his carries may be limited.
All this bodes well for an Eagles defense that is still in search of an identity. The defensive line will provide pressure, but there appear to still be holes in the back seven.
On offense, the Eagles face a stiffer test. The Browns’ allowed only a fifth-best 19.2 points game last season and were particularly stingy inside the red zone. Last season, opponents had a touchdown rate of only 40.8 percent inside the 20, which was third best in the NFL. The Eagles have worked diligently on their red zone offense this preseason. Expect to see a lot of two tight end sets down there with both Brent Celek and Clay Harbor getting opportunities this season.
Michael Vick plays for the first time in nearly three weeks after he bruised his ribs at New England in the second preseason game. It would be nice to see the Eagles quarterback play a full 60 minutes. More than 12 snaps – the total number he took in the preseason – would be nice, too. Cleveland’s best pass rusher, Jabaal Sheard, will face up against right tackle Todd Herremans. Left tackle King Dunlap will see Frostee Rucker and maybe a little of former Eagles endJuqua Parker.
As long as the Eagles offense doesn’t have turnover problems – and that’s not a certain after last season – DeSean Jackson, Jerermy Maclin and LeSean McCoy should have enough gas to score more than three touchdowns against the Browns. Eagles, 28-17.
What goes right:The Eagles defensive front piles up the sacks and pressures Weeden into a few interceptions.
What goes wrong: The left side of the Eagles offensive line – Dunlap and left guard Evan Mathis -- struggles.
Season:There are legitimate reasons for the Eagles to feel optimistic about this season. They’re talented and they’re healthy and after a full offseason together they should have cohesion. They have as high-powered an offense as there in the NFL. Jackson and Maclin, while not yet among the top 5 duos in the league, give Vick a formidable wide receiver corp that can stretch the field. Their size and durability is a concern, however. McCoy has blossomed into one of the best running backs in the league. He will have to get used to extra attention, however. Celek-Harbor is a decent 1-2 punch at tight end. Jason Avant is a solid slot receiver.
Vick’s improvement and ability to stay healthy, as you might have heard, will decide the Eagles’ ultimate success. I have the over/under on the number of games he misses at 2.5. The loss of left tackle Jason Peters will hurt. How could it not? Dunlap is fine in pass protection, but he isn’t much of a run blocker. That will also hinder McCoy. As long as the Eagles limit the turnovers, the offense should be fine, though.
The Eagles defense is another story. I see the same issues plaguing this unit from a season ago. Good running backs will run through the linebackers and safeties. Good coordinators will find ways to fool the front seven with screens and draws. And Juan Castillo will continue to struggle to make it all work. DeMeco Ryans was supposed to help solve the crisis at linebacker. He will be a disappointment. There are already signs that he won’t play on third down. Mychal Kendricks looks like the real deal. But he’s a rookie and he’ll make mistakes. The safeties – Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman – will be a liability.
The good news: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will make everyone forget Asante Samuel. The defensive line will once again dominate the pass rush, but that comes with a cost. The front four will get sacks and will be called one of the best units in the league. But how can you be great if you affect only 70 percent of plays?
When it’s all said and done I see only marginal improvement. The schedule in the first half is difficult. If the Eagles are 4-4 or better at the break they’ll make a run to the playoffs. If they’re under .500 -- as I think they will be -- then you’re looking at another run to mediocrity. I see a 9-7 record at best.
That’s better than 8-8 – the low bar Jeffrey Lurie set for Andy Reid– but it’s not a “substantial improvement.” I’ve felt all along that Reid needs to get to the playoffs and win at least one game, perhaps two, to be back in 2013. I know there are a lot of skeptics that think Lurie doesn’t have the stones to cut the cord. A 9-7 mark and missing the playoffs will make it easy.
Super Bowl: Packers > Texans
Week 1:The Eagles drew a favorable opening-week draw, because the Browns are early in their rebuilding stages and face a number of key injuries. Because of that, expect a big game from the Eagles – especially the passing game and the pass rush. Vick will throw for three touchdowns, Maclin will exceed 100 yards and the Eagles’ defensive ends will combine for at least four sacks. By the third quarter, the game will be decided and the Eagles will feel good about themselves…until they see that the Ravens are the schedule for next week.
What goes right: Maclin headlines a pundit’s fantasy football article on Monday morning with his best performance since Week 2 in Atlanta last season.
What goes wrong: Concerns about the Eagles’ safeties will multiply when the Browns hit on a big play that’s the fault of one of the safeties.
Season: The Eagles will have a better season in 2012 than 2011, although it still won’t result in a parade down Broad Street. Vick will start 14 games and look dynamic in those games, somewhere between the Vick that was seen in 2010 and the Vick than was seen in 2011. The Eagles’ offense will be in top 5, although problems at left tackle will force Vick to scramble more than he’d like. Maclin and Jackson will become the Eagles’ first duo to ever exceed 1,000 yards in the season.
On defense, the Eagles will lead the NFL in sacks, but the lack of size on the interior of the line will again leave the linebackers exposed. The safeties will be an issue all season, costing the Eagles in at least two games. Still, the pass rush will impress enough to keep the Eagles in Top 10 again, with Phillip Hunt becoming the breakout player with 8 ½ sacks.
Eagles go 10-6, win the NFC East and an opening round game at home before losing in the divisional round. Lurie is faced with a difficult decision on Reid, who shows improvements but goes his 14th season without a Super Bowl. Another difficult decision will be the future of Vick, who has an outstanding year but fails to play 16 games. The Eagles are left with the same questions next January as they did this past January.
Super Bowl: Ravens > Packers