Eagles still flawed, but they're also lucky
IT'S NOT as if the Eagles failed in their defense of a Super Bowl title.
All they did was win five games in a row.
Sure, they are different from the team that started 3-5. They are better in some areas, more familiar with the schemes of offensive innovator Chip Kelly and defensive gambler Billy Davis.
But, at their core, they remain the same.
The defensive backfield lacks talent. The pass rush can be stymied. The linebackers do not cover receivers particularly well. The offensive line is leaky when asked to do too much too often. The wunderkind quarterback isn't quite so wunderbar, after all; he can be mechanically inefficient, he lacks the arm strength to compensate and he lacks the speed to mask the line's weaknesses.
So, with two games left, the playoffs are anything but a certainty. Not with the Bears visiting Sunday. Not with Dallas, desperate, in what could be a winner-take-all showdown finale in Texas. Kelly said that he sees only this Sunday in his myopic lens, that he cannot afford to consider 14 games before and the one after, and that he believes each contest is its own study in efficiency.
Ask any coach in the NFL and he'll tell you the first goal, the only goal that matters, is reaching the postseason. There, health and luck and talent in the playoffs can mean a win, or two, or more; consider the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010, who won a wild card game, or the 9-7 Giants in 2011, who won the Super Bowl.
"My expectations every season are to get in the playoffs, then try to make a run," Eagles veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
For this team to make a run to the playoffs has meant playing to the limits of its capacity. It won because it stayed freakishly healthy, the byproduct of Kelly's secret conditioning regimen and because Kelly doesn't let his guys hit too much in practice.
The Eagles won five straight with a lot of luck, and some awfully good timing.
One of the wins, the best of them, over Arizona, followed the Birds' bye week, and it was at home.
Two of them came the week after their opponent's best player got hurt. Aaron Rodgers did not play in Green Bay, and Reggie Bush could not play when his Lions visited in the snow.
If Bush isn't the Lions' best player, then Calvin Johnson is, and 8 inches of snow effectively nullified his potential.
A slew of calls went the Eagles' way in their wins against the Cardinals and Lions.
Oakland is lousy. Washington just benched its franchise quarterback. They are last-place teams.
Then, last week, the Eagles lost a game on the road to a solid team. Minnesota might have had only three wins, but its road was rough: Seattle, at Chicago, Carolina (which began the Panthers' 9-1 run), Green Bay with Rodgers. Five times, five points or fewer stood between the Vikings and a win.
Yes, they beat the Birds without the services of Adrian Peterson. His omission might have led the Eagles to play softer, or dumber.
The inclusion, and the execution, of Matt Cassel stunned the Birds. He replaced Christian Ponder two games before, and immediately led the Vikings to their second win in eight games. Then, he torched the Eagles.
Cassel might not be Fran Tarkenton, but right now he's better than young guns Terrelle Pryor in Oakland and Robert Griffin III in Washington; he is better indoors than Detroit's Matt Stafford in a snowstorm, and he might be as good as Carson Palmer these days; and he always has been better than Seneca Wallace.
He isn't as good as Jay Cutler, who returned to the Bears on Sunday and threw three touchdown passes.
Matt Forte, ranked third in rushing yards and third in yards from scrimmage, is the most complete back the Birds will have faced this season since Jamaal Charles, who helped the Chiefs beat the Eagles in Week 3.
Devin Hester remains a lethal kick returner, and he will return any kick he can get his hands on; last week, the Eagles were scared to kick to Cordarrelle Patterson, which sorely taxed the Eagles' defense.
Bears receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, at 6-4 and 6-3, respectively, are the only NFL receiving tandem with 1,000 yards apiece.
"That's what makes it so tough. They have an outstanding running back, but they have two outstanding receivers and tight end," Kelly said. "Sometimes, when you play some teams, you can really slant things one way or another and say, 'We need to stop this.' "
Bears quarterbacks also have been sacked only 24 times, the third-lowest total in the league; probably the best indicator of why the Bears' 29.0 points per game average is so high (second in the league).
"I don't think we've faced a team as balanced as this," Ryans said. "That's why I love this matchup. It's a good test."
Of course, by the time they play Sunday night, the game might be meaningless for both teams. If Dallas beats Washington, the Eagles must win in Dallas to make the playoffs. If the Lions lose and Packers win, the Bears must beat the Packers.
But Cutler, coming off an injury, has played once in the past month, so Bears coach Marc Trestman might want him to get as many reps as possible. Trestman will not commit to any contingency plan.
Kelly said he will play his starters Sunday night, no matter what, considering the sputtering he has seen teamwide in the past 2 weeks. That included a comeback win in the Snow Bowl against the Lions.
Kelly knows that even five straight wins do not necessarily indicate postseason suitability.
Certainly, not with his team.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch