Win or lose, Eagles can't afford to take foot off of gas | David Murphy

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Eagles quarterback Nick Foles against the New York Giants on Sunday, December 17, 2017.

This is something that Nick Foles said earlier this week regarding his priorities as he moves forward as the Eagles’ starting quarterback:

“Just continue to get in a rhythm,” the 28-year-old signal caller said. “You want to excel every day. That was my first opportunity to step on the field in a starting spot, playing a full game with that group of guys. There were guys in that huddle that I’ve played a lot of football with and there were guys that was my first time to play a full game with.”

Pretty standard stuff, perhaps, but try considering those words within the context of the decision that Doug Pederson could find himself contemplating if the Eagles take care of business against the Raiders on Monday night. Rest vs. Rust is a familiar debate this time of year, and it’s one that the second-year head coach did his best to avoid throughout this past week of practice. The world may never know what he, Pederson, would have done had the Packers knocked off the Vikings on Saturday night, thereby clinching home-field advantage for the Eagles for the divisional and championship rounds of the playoffs. But here’s what he should do if the Eagles end up clinching it for themselves against the Raiders: nothing.

That is, nothing different from what he has done through the first 15 weeks of the season.

Look: This is not your typical 12-2 team cruising down the home stretch. It starts at the game’s most important position, where, despite last week’s four-touchdown performance against the Giants, Foles remains a quarterback who is badly in need of first-team reps, and no amount of passes he can throw against the Raiders will be enough to change that fundamental truth.

“The more you do something, you just become more comfortable,” Foles said. “Obviously, that (Giants win) was my first time starting a game since last season. You just have to continue to get more comfortable, and then you can play at a higher speed.”

Again, read those words and think about the questions people will be asking of Pederson if the Eagles have home-field advantage secured heading into the Week 17 finale against the Cowboys. Even in normal circumstances, there is a strong argument that the benefits of resting one’s starters is outweighed by the disruption such rest creates in the rhythm that teams develop over the course of a season.

As Pederson formulates his strategy, you wonder how much the end of last season will play on his mind. It was Week 17 of last season that the Cowboys were preparing for a trip to Lincoln Financial Field with their playoff fate secure. At 13-2, Dallas had clinched all there was to clinch, and Jason Garrett was left to ponder what mattered more: maintaining the rhythm with which the Cowboys’ young offense was operating, or maintaining the health of the stars responsible for that rhythm. Garrett chose the latter, keeping Dak Prescott and the starting offense on the field for just two series before beckoning for the back-ups. Prescott attempted eight passes, Ezekiel Elliot did not carry the ball once, and the Eagles cruised to a meaningless 27-13 win.

The results of Garrett’s strategy were mixed. From a positive standpoint, the Cowboys entered their divisional round match-up against the Packers in perfect health. On the negative side, that perfect health culminated in a 34-31 heartbreaker of a loss to the Packers, who got a 51-yard field goal from Mason Crosby as time expired to leave Big D with a win.

And that isn’t the only ghost of Christmas past that might haunt Pederson during his decision-making process. Back in 2013, when he was a member of Andy Reid’s rookie coaching staff in Kansas City, the Chiefs entered Week 17 with nothing to play for, locked into the top wild card spot in the AFC by virtue of an 11-4 record. Reid opted against giving his starters even a drive: Chase Daniel started and played the whole game at quarterback in a 27-24 loss to the Chargers.

The layoff didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the Chiefs’ first-stringers. At least, not on the offensive side of the ball, where Alex Smith threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns and the Chiefs finished with over 500 total yards of offense the following week. On the defensive side, though, the Chiefs allowed Andrew Luck and the Colts to come back from a 38-10 deficit and rack up over 500 yards of offense in a stunning loss (linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali and defensive tackle Dontari Poe were all inactive for the Week 17 finale against the Chargers).

While Pederson insisted that he has not made any decisions about how he will proceed if the Eagles lock up home-field advantage, he sounds like a coach who is leaning toward the business-as-usual approach.

“I think it’s important that they continue to play,” he said earlier this week. “If we’re in that position, if we’re fortunate enough to be in that position, to rest, I’ll make a decision at that time. But I think it’s important here in these next couple of games that we continue to play.”

This week, Foles sounded like a quarterback who would agree with that sentiment. The Eagles’ reality right now is that they do not have the luxury of easing up on the gas pedal. In that sense, the Vikings’ win on Saturday night might have been a Christmas blessing in disguise.