Eagles' ground game could be peaking at the right time
SOMETHING HAPPENED last Sunday night in Dallas that brought back a specific memory - of an Eagles playoff game a long time ago, and of a skill that great offenses require. When the Eagles unfurled that fourth-quarter touchdown drive, when they ran the ball on nine out of 11 plays, it was the most important event of the day - that is, if you believe the Eagles have a chance to make a run this month.
Here is the memory: of the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis in January 2002. The Eagles were big underdogs that day in their first long playoff run under Andy Reid. We all remember it because the Eagles were 52 yards away from pulling out the game when it ended for them, and because Freddie Mitchell did or didn't run the wrong route at the end, and because Donovan McNabb stood in the tunnel, just off the edge of the field, to watch the Rams celebrate.
But the most significant thing that happened in that game - which the Eagles led at the half, 17-13 - was what the Rams did to open the third quarter. Remember, this was the Greatest Show on Turf, indoor pyrotechnics the likes of which the NFL had not seen - Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, all maestroed by Mike Martz. This is how it went:
Marshall Faulk, left end, 5 yards.
Marshall Faulk, left tackle, 7 yards.
Marshall Faulk, right tackle, 5 yards.
Marshall Faulk, right tackle, 4 yards.
Marshall Faulk, right end, 3 yards.
Marshall Faulk, left end, 1 yard.
Marshall Faulk, left end, 2 yards.
Those were the first seven plays of the drive. They were not spectacular plays, and the drive netted only a field goal. The Eagles still led by a point when the drive was over. But what it did was send a message to everyone of how the rest of the half would play out - that the Rams would lean on their best player and run the ball more than usual. Faulk ran 31 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but 23 of the runs and both of the touchdowns were in the second half.
More than anything, what that first drive did was restore order in a game that was threatening to spiral out of the better team's control. That is what great running games do in the NFL: restore order. Faulk did it that day. Emmitt Smith did it a dozen times over the years he played in big games for the Dallas Cowboys. Now we all have seen LeSean McCoy do it for the Eagles in an elimination game on the road.
And when McCoy says, "We're made for the playoffs," this, to me, is what he is talking about.
The Eagles have run the ball more and better than any team in the NFL this season. They have this trio of stars - McCoy, quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver DeSean Jackson - and they have a half-dozen ways to beat a team, if it comes to that - and it might just come to that tomorrow night against an explosive New Orleans Saints team that has to be a little tired of hearing about its shrinkage in cold weather.
If coach Chip Kelly chooses to keep this group together, and if good fortune (in the form of good health) smiles upon them, people might give them a nickname like "the Triplets," which is what they started calling Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin after they won a couple of Super Bowls.
But that is for later. In the here and now, in the winning of January football games, there likely will be a point in each game at which the Eagles will need to lean on their best offensive player for a stretch. That is McCoy. Not just against the Cowboys last week, but all season, he has shown this uncanny ability to grow stronger and more productive as the game progresses - and Kelly has shown he can add a schematic wrinkle, late in games, that matters.
"I think it applies for the linemen and the running back," McCoy said. "The more touches, the more plays you getting running the ball, the more comfortable you get, the different looks you can see, you see how the defense adjusts to certain plays and you feel them out. A play from earlier in the game can be run late in the game and be more successful if it goes to the right.
"Defenses are smart, and they try to adjust to whatever you do. It's a reaction, and it's different things and how you fit into a run. If you get more comfortable as the game goes on, you can really take over in the fourth quarter."
It is a requisite skill for teams who want to keep playing in January. McCoy and the Eagles have it.
On Twitter: @theidlerich