There are still 10 games left to play. But with the Eagles at 3-3, Andy Reid faces what can accurately be described as a must-win game when the Atlanta Falcons visit Sunday.
The Eagles coach isn't in panic mode yet, but the firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo after the meltdown against the Detroit Lions has tightened the noose around Reid's neck.
If the Birds win - Reid is perfect after the bye - it will buy the coach a little breathing room. But a loss before a Monday night road game against the New Orleans Saints could require drastic measures.
Which brings us to Michael Vick, seemingly under as much pressure as Reid to hold onto his job. The quarterback faces his old team again, but never with so much on the line. If Vick delivers another turnover-marred outing, a desperate Reid may have no other choice but to go with rookie Nick Foles.
When the Eagles run
Ever since LeSean McCoy's explosive second half against the New York Giants, the Eagles have had a difficult time getting yards on the ground. In the first four games the running back ran 81 times for 384 yards (a 4.7 average). Against the Steelers and Lions in the last two, McCoy was held to 75 yards on 30 carries (2.5 avg.). Bryce Brown has given the Eagles very little (19 carries for 51 yards) in the backup role. Some of the blame for the recent woes can be pinned on the offensive line. Some can be placed on offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, whose play-calling (another stretch play?) against the Lions was questionable. The Falcons are weak against the run - they are 28th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (143.8 yards a game). They are particularly vulnerable on the edges - they're 27th in the league when opponents run off the left end (6.9 yards a carry) and 31st when they run off the right end (7.1 avg.). Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is very good in coverage and as a pass-rusher, but is mediocre as a run-stopper.
When the Eagles pass
The Falcons defense, under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, is seventh in the league in points but is 22d in total yards. The reason for the disparity: Atlanta has forced 17 turnovers. The Eagles, of course, have had trouble in the giveaway department with 17 of their own. The Birds have yet to score on their opening drive this season, in part because the offensive line has had trouble getting the motor started. Defensive end John Abraham (six sacks) heads the Falcons' pass rush. King Dunlap, in his first action at left tackle since Week 2, will face the veteran. Dunlap's first career start two years ago was against the Falcons, and he helped keep Abraham in check. Kroy Biermann has developed into a versatile end and will occasionally drop into coverage if Nolan zone-blitzes. Weatherspoon and linebacker Stephen Nicholas like to blitz from the A-gap, which could test center Dallas Reynolds. Nolan will also send his safeties - Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. They do a lot of shifting pre-snap. The most-watched matchup here could be Vick vs. Asante Samuel. The former Eagles cornerback knows Vick's tendencies, but Mornhinweg knows Samuel's weaknesses as well - biting on double moves and being susceptible to bubble screens. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (24 catches for 413 yards and four touchdowns vs. the Falcons) will both see Samuel on the left side. The physical Dunta Robinson, who knocked Jackson out of a 2010 game and speared Maclin last year, is on the other side.
When the Falcons run
Michael Turner, once the centerpiece of the Atlanta offense, has seen his carries cut significantly as the Falcons have tilted more to the pass. The 30-year-old running back averaged 20 carries a game in the previous four seasons, but has gotten only 14 totes a game this year. Turner, though, could be used against an Eagles run defense that has struggled recently. The Birds allowed an average of just 91.5 rushing yards in the first four weeks, but surrendered 130.5 yards per to the Steelers and Lions. Turner ran for 114 yards on 20 carries last year against the Eagles as they adapted to the wide-nine scheme on the line. DeMeco Ryans has helped fill the gaps this season, but linebacker Mychal Kendricks and safeties Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen have had the occasional breakdown in run support.
When the Falcons pass
The Matt Ryan who came home to Philly in 2008 and 2010 and lost both times is no more - at least that's the early-season spin. The quarterback has mastered Atlanta's no-huddle, quick-throwing offense for most of the season. He has completed 67.8 percent of his passes, although he did toss three interceptions against the lowly Raiders his last time out. The Falcons can still pack in their formations, but they like to run a lot of three- and four-receiver sets with wideouts Roddy White (37 catches for 553 yards and four TDs) and Julio Jones (30-376-4) and tight end Tony Gonzalez as Ryan's primary targets. The big question will be how new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles plans to pressure Ryan and cover the big three. The Eagles, in an oft-repeated statistic, have not recorded a sack in their last three games. Ryan gets rid of the ball fast and he operates behind a workmanlike offensive line. Defensive end Trent Cole has had success against left tackle Sam Baker in the past, and right tackle Tyson Clabo, who will see a lot of Jason Babin, has had his issues in pass protection. Bowles may need to send extra pass-rushers, though. As for who guards whom in the secondary, a lot could depend on how Bowles plans to cover the Hall of Fame-bound Gonzalez. Nnamdi Asomugha helped with Gonzalez last year and even picked off a pass intended for the tight end. But Gonzalez burned the Eagles in the red zone for two TDs when he was matched up against a linebacker or safety. Kendricks and Allen should see their fair share of Gonzalez, who leads all NFL tight ends with 43 catches.
The Eagles' cover units fared better against the Lions, but the return game was still lacking. Mardy Gilyard took over for Damaris Johnson as the primary punt returner, but he, too, had little room to run. Brandon Boykin had his best game returning kicks, but the Birds offense is still starting on average inside its own 25. The Falcons' special teams are solid across the board. Their punt-cover unit is led by punter Matt Bosher, whose 42.4-yard net average is seventh-best in the league. Kicker Matt Bryant has missed just one field goal attempt all season – a 43-yarder – and has hit from 53 and 55.
Reid's 13-0 record after the bye is much more than a mere coincidence. Give the coach two weeks to prepare for an opponent and he's money. Atlanta's Mike Smith is 3-1 the week after the bye, his one loss coming to the Eagles in 2008. Smith is 1-3 heads up against Reid and the Eagles. Reid is 8-2 against the Falcons (including two playoff wins). Atlanta has lost six straight in Philadelphia dating back to 1988, including playoff losses in 2002 and 2004. One additional thing to watch: the Falcons are a disciplined team. They average a league-fewest three penalties a game.
For the Inquirer beat reporters' predictions, click here.