Scouting the Eagles and the Cardinals
When Chip Kelly last exited Lincoln Financial Field, he noted how the Eagles had set themselves up for meaningful December football. A critical five-game stretch begins Sunday, and it includes four opponents in playoff contention. The first game is against the Arizona Cardinals, who went from 3-4 to 7-4 and are one of the few teams in the NFL as hot as the Eagles.
Kelly talks often about a "one-game season" and "one-game operation," a familiar coaching mantra. He was correct this past week, however, when he noted that the Eagles' five weeks have given them little leeway - and with Dallas winning on Thursday, the race is even more difficult. Kelly has said he'll see where the Eagles stand on Dec. 29, and not worry about the race before that.
"I think too many people can get caught up in the stuff where what's going to happen down the road and who's going to be here, and then you always get surprised," Kelly said. "I mean, there's a million examples that you can point to, but when we meet, we meet to talk about the Arizona Cardinals. So if I have to explain to these guys that we need to not focus on them and focus on somebody else, I think they would think I was crazy."
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians' comments about the read-option made for interesting discussion, but the differences between two of the NFL's better offenses will be apparent in the game. Arizona runs a pro-style downfield-passing attack, while the Eagles operate a spread offense with concepts becoming more popular around the NFL.
When the Eagles run
The Cardinals visit Philadelphia with the NFL's No. 2 rushing defense. LeSean McCoy is the NFL's leading rusher with 1,009 yards. Either McCoy will have a bad day, or the Cardinals will have a bad day. McCoy's been limited to fewer than 4 yards per carry in four of the last five weeks. The Cardinals have kept opponents to 3.5 yards per carry, although they allowed Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and San Francisco's Frank Gore to have strong outings.
McCoy is going to need the offensive line to open holes, which is difficult to do against the Cardinals defensive line. Ends Calias Campbell and Darnell Dockett team with nose tackle Dan Williams to form a stout front in the 3-4, and inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Darryl Washington are both strong tacklers.
It won't be easy for McCoy, but he's the NFL's rushing leader for a reason.
When the Eagles pass
Nick Foles was named NFC offensive player of the month in November after setting the NFC record for best quarterback rating in a month with a 152.8. That's a testament to how well Foles is running the offense. He's completing 63.6 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions, although this might be the toughest defense he will have seen.
Former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles oversees Arizona's unit, which has a strong secondary and will not be afraid to blitz Foles. Patrick Peterson is one of the NFL's top cornerbacks. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur expects Peterson to track DeSean Jackson, who is 15 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards for the season. Peterson has the speed to stay with Jackson and the size to bump him at the line. He also has strong ball skills, so Foles' run without an interception could be in jeopardy. Another ball-hawking defensive back is rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, who has two interceptions.
The Cardinals have been susceptible to tight ends. St. Louis' Jared Cook, San Francisco's Vernon Davis, and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham have all had big games. Zach Ertz could be in line for his best game as an Eagle.
Arizona receives a strong pass rush from its line. John Abraham leads the team with seven sacks.
When the Cardinals run
The weakness of Arizona's offense is its rushing attack. The Cardinals are No. 24 in the NFL with 88.7 yards per game, and starter Rashard Mendenhall has been limited to three yards per game. Their best rusher is rookie Andre Ellington, who averages six yards per carry, but he's questionable with a knee injury.
The Cardinals offensive line might struggle, and the strength of the Eagles defense is its line. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans centers a formidable rushing defense. It helps the Eagles that inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks will return next to Ryans. If the Cardinals win, it will unlikely be with their rushing attack.
When the Cardinals pass
Sunday's game could shift with this matchup. The Cardinals are dangerous through the air, as quarterback Carson Palmer benefits from big receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Both are 6-foot-3, and both are terrific in playing the ball in the air. Fitzgerald leads Arizona with 50 receptions and eight touchdowns, and Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis called the veteran "probably still the best receiver in the league."
Floyd has emerged in recent weeks with back-to-back 100-yard performances, and the 2012 first-round pick leads Arizona with 781 receiving yards. The Eagles signed cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams this season because of their size, so this is a matchup in which both must excel. Fletcher missed the last two games with a pectoral injury, but he will return.
Tight end Rob Housler is also an improving player whom the Eagles must monitor. Eagles safety Earl Wolff will miss the game with a knee injury.
The Eagles' best bet will be pressuring Palmer, who has been sacked 30 times. Palmer has 15 interceptions, although he did not throw one the last two weeks.
The Eagles have the No. 32 pass defense in the NFL. They are tied for No. 26 in sacks. Unless they improve in both areas, it will be a long afternoon for the defense.
The Cardinals returners have been limited, although they're still dangerous. Peterson returns punts and brought four to the end zone in 2011. Javier Arenas returns kicks and has strong skills. Kicker Jay Feely has made 22 of 24 field goals. The Eagles special teams have been playing well. Punter Donnie Jones has excelled, and DeSean Jackson is now the featured punt returner. He is a threat to score any time he touches the ball.
The Cardinals have a four-game winning streak and the Eagles have a three-game winning streak. The Eagles are coming off a bye week and have only one injured player. A 1 p.m. game can sometimes be a disadvantage for a team going west to east, although the Eagles lost earlier this season to San Diego at Lincoln Financial Field and the Cardinals' only two road wins came in Florida.
ZACH BERMAN: CARDINALS 27, EAGLES 24
JEFF MCLANE: CARDINALS 23, EAGLES 20