Week 14: The Eagles are mathematically still in the playoff hunt. If the Eagles win their four remaining games (Bucs, Bengals, Redskins, Giants), the New York Giants lose their four remaining games (Saints, Falcons, Ravens, Eagles), the Redskins lose their next three games (Ravens, Browns, Eagles) and then beat Dallas in the season finale, and the Cowboys lose their remaining four games (Bengals, Steelers, Saints, Redskins), then the Eagles would win the NFC East. The Eagles, Giants and Redskins would finish with 7-9 records, but the Eagles would win the head-to-head win-loss tiebreaker.
Who said there wasn’t anything left to play for?
Now that we got that nonsense out of the way, the Eagles’ dim postseason hopes will officially end with a loss in Tampa. The Bucs are coming off two straight loses, but they still have plenty to play for and will outlast an opponent that will show some fight for its embattled coach.
The Eagles, if they maintain the balance they’ve shown on offense the last two weeks, will be able to move the ball on Tampa’s defense. The Bucs are ranked first against the run and last against the pass, but Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg should avoid the temptation to drop Nick Foles back at a ridiculously high rate. Tampa has some aggressive run stoppers in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller and linebacker Lavonte David, but there should still be some space for Bryce Brown to run as long as the Eagles offensive line zone blocks as well as it did last week against the Cowboys. Oh, and Brown has to hold onto the ball.
If Brown can break a few early ones, Foles should have ample time against a Bucs pass rush that has been ineffective for most of the season.
The Eagles will lose because of their horrendous pass defense. Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson will give whoever is covering him – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Nnamdi Asomugha-- headaches. He’s one of the best deep threats in the league. Either Eagles cornerback will get help over the top from one of the safeties -- “help” being a relative word. Kurt Coleman is unlikely to play with a chest bruise. Some fans may believe his injury was a fortunate break, but Colt Anderson hasn’t fared well whenever he’s been asked to play on defense.
Bucs running back Doug Martin has been hard to bring down for most of the season but he may have run into that rookie wall. He’s been held in check the last two weeks. Martin is a dangerous ball catcher, though. There’s no reason to believe the Bucs’ Josh Freeman won’t try and take advantage of an Eagles secondary that has been mostly responsible for opposing quarterbacks averaging a 142.2 passer rating over the last six games.
Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 23.
What goes right: Trent Cole is rejuvenated by the schematic change up front and will record his first solo sack since Week 2.
What goes wrong: Dallas Reynolds once again has problems with “A” gap blitzes.
Week 14:The question that must be asked is not will the Eagles win Sunday, but rather, will they win again this season? It won’t come on Sunday. Tampa Bay is far from an elite team, but they present a difficult matchup. The Eagles’ inability to limit opposing quarterbacks does not bode well against Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who has experienced a bounce back season in 2012. Most impressive is the propensity for big plays -- Freeman has completed a pass of 40 yards or more in nine games this season. Add in the steady running of Martin and sharp play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, and this is underrated offense.
This game will also be a major test for Brown. Tampa Bay has the NFL’s top rushing defense -- in part because they have the league’s worst passing defense. But Brown’s last two games show that he has tools that could make him an elite running back, and the two questions are whether he can consistently do it and whether he can limit fumbles. What he has, though, you can’t teach: the natural size and speed combination, and vision that belies his experiences. If he continues his hot streak, then it’s reasonable to consider Brown a central part of this offense -- even when LeSean McCoy returns.
Foles could be in line for his finest game yet -- not just because of the vulnerability of Tampa Bay’s pass defense, but also because Mornhinweg continues to open the playbook. Foles only has nine passes this season beyond 20 yards, and he’ll continue to have more opportunities to throw the ball downfield. Foles is also eliminating turnovers, thus extending drives.
Of course, Foles’ future is also tied to the first question. If the Eagles do not win the rest of the season, can the team really trust a quarterback who is 0-7? The record is an important measure of success. Unfortunately for Foles, it would be imprudent to pick the Eagles until they prove they can win.
Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 27
What goes right:Brown does not fumble and tops 100 yards. Foles hits on a deep ball to Jeremy Maclin. Fletcher Cox records a sack.
What goes wrong: The secondary has a breakdown in which Jackson runs free for a big play. The Eagles fail to force a turnover.