Since almost no one expects the Eagles to win, particularly in Philadelphia, a moral victory could be had if Chip Kelly’s offense is as potent as it was in the first two games. This game is a microcosm of how many felt about the Eagles’ prospects this season. Many thought the team wouldn’t win more than they’ll lose, but as long as Kelly delivered on the offensive side of the ball and there was overall improvement they would be satisfied. The Eagles’ opener against the Redskins skewed expectations, but most are back to seeing the Eagles for what they are: A team with an explosive, if still mistake-prone offense, and a defense that can’t stop most teams, let along Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
So most would take a loss as long the Eagles put up another 30 points. But if Kelly’s offense has another turnover-filled day and can’t sustain drives there will be howling all of next week. That doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t win. Anything is possible.
Manning and the Broncos will march up and down the field. But if Bill Davis’ defense can force field goals and get a red zone turnover or two (!), they have a fighter’s chance. The Eagles are eighth in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing only five touchdowns on 13 possessions. Manning kept saying during Wednesday’s conference call with Philly reporters that the Birds defense inside the 20 was something Denver needed to be wary of. While he was probably grasping for compliments, it’s something the Eagles can hang their hats on.
Davis had to trick his defense up some to keep the Chiefs in check for three quarters last Thursday, but he managed to do so without blitzing much. He can help his secondary again by reeling in the blitz and trying to create pressure with the illusion of blitz. Manning has seen every type of blitz, every type of disguise. The Eagles should rely on their three-man defensive line and another pass rusher to create pressure and hope that a few players win individual matchups.
If the Eagles can’t get any immediate pressure, it could get ugly. Patrick Chung (shoulder) is likely out at safety, and while he hasn’t been playing well, his replacement is rookie Earl Wolff. Manning will know where Wolff is at every moment and will go right at him.
On offense, the Eagles have to eliminate the turnovers. Michael Vick has to play smarter. And Kelly has to establish the run and stay with it. The strength of this offense is LeSean McCoy and the running attack. There is no excuse for the Eagles running back getting less than 25 total touches. The Chargers and Chiefs had an extra safety down in the box for long stretches against the Eagles and McCoy was still very productive. Give him 25 carries and throw in another 7-8 for Bryce Brown.
Time of possession is overrated and has little to do with why the Eagles defense has struggled. But it wouldn’t hurt to control the clock some and keep Manning off the field. A lot has been written about the Eagles' lack of a true No. 2 receiver this week. It didn’t seem to hurt them the first two weeks. That being said, Riley Cooper has to get some separation from time to time to keep defenses honest and help DeSean Jackson. It might be time for Zach Ertz to play a little more than 25 percent of the snaps. Brent Celek has a done a good job staying into block, something Eagles tight ends have been asked to do more of this season, but more two tight end sets couldn’t hurt. Cooper and Jason Avant are expendable.
If the Eagles can execute Kelly’s offense and limit the mistakes they should be able to score 30 on Denver’s missing-Von-Miller-and-Champ-Bailey defense. The Broncos still have a few pass rushers, Wesley Woodyward is a sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker and former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has done fine work in Bailey’s absence. But Jack Del Rio’s unit isn’t as strong top to bottom as the Chiefs defense.
The Eagles have hope. Unfortunately, it won’t be enough.
Prediction: Broncos 40, Eagles 30
What goes right: The Broncos offensive line has a hard time containing Fletcher Cox without double teams.
What goes wrong: Eagles linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks get torched by Broncos tight end Julius Thomas.
The mystique of Peyton Manning makes for good stories, and the week leading up to the game has included legitimate respect from the Eagles about the Broncos quarterback. But from a pure football perspective, talking about Manning is legitimate because this is an incredibly difficult matchup for the Eagles.
When you go look at the Broncos offense this season, what’s striking is how the ball is distributed. They play 11 personnel for most of the game – Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas – and the defense can pick their poison. It’s a different player each game. All four pass-catchers have at least 194 yards this season.
The player who poses the biggest challenge for the Eagles is Julius Thomas, the tight end. Thomas is such a dynamic athlete at that position, and the Eagles simply don’t have a player on defense who can match up with a player of his size and speed at that spot. I’m curious to see how the Eagles try to defend him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Julius Thomas has the most catches of any Broncos receiver on Sunday.
The Eagles defensive backfield must have their finest game of the season. It’s that simple. With Patrick Chung’s status in question, that’ll be even more difficult. I thought the Eagles might play three safeties more frequently in this game, although Chung’s injury could complicate that. Maybe Kurt Coleman gets in there in a dime look. It will be intriguing to watch.
New left tackle Chris Clark had a solid start last week replacing Ryan Clady. The Eagles need to somehow find a way to pressure Manning, and you’d think a backup would be an area to exploit. I expect Vinny Curry to be active, and they need him to penetrate the backfield. Fletcher Cox must be a presence on the interior.
On offense, I think the Eagles can move the ball. They’ll need to if they want to keep pace with Denver. Chip Kelly is a smart coach, and the extra few days of preparation will be an advantage for him. LeSean McCoy will have another big day – he’s that good. If I keep predicting that Zach Ertz will have a strong performance, I’m going to be right at some point. I just don’t know what personnel groupings that will come from. Jason Avant is playing well, and there haven’t been many spots to take them off the field.
The variable that is difficult to predict is turnovers. Michael Vick must take better care of the ball. It’s that simple. The Eagles will have a hard time winning if Vick throws two interceptions. But if they win the turnover battle, they’ll be in the game in the fourth quarter. Vick will have a nice bounce-back game, but it won’t be enough.
Ultimately, it’s hard to go against the better team. The Broncos win this game, and it won’t be in doubt. This is just too difficult of a matchup for the Eagles, even with more time to prepare.
And remember: take the over.
Prediction: Broncos 42, Eagles 31
What goes right: McCoy with another 100-yard rush performance. The passing game looks better than it did last week.
What goes wrong: Julius Thomas has a 100-yard receiving performance for the Broncos. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepts Vick.