The Eagles are looking to prolong their title defense on the road Sunday against a really good football team that is particularly difficult to beat at home.
Fortunately for them, they’ve already done that once this season.
When the Eagles went to Los Angeles to play the Rams on Dec. 16, their record was 6-7 and – as we suspected then and know for a fact now – one more loss was the end of the line for any hope of repeating as champions.
Not that it was a tough spot or anything. The Rams were 6-0 in the L.A. Coliseum and had racked up an overall 11-1 start to the season before being shut down the previous week in Chicago. They would be looking to rebound in front of their home fans, and what better opportunity than against the Super Bowl champions, a team that had come in and beaten them the year before. And this time, the visitors would be starting Nick Foles for the first time after a 13-week layoff. No, it didn’t look all that good.
Similarly, things don’t look promising on paper for the Eagles in their wild-card round playoff game this Sunday against the Bears in Soldier Field. Chicago is 7-1 at home, has one of the best defenses in the league, and exerts its dominance by stuffing the run, harassing the quarterback and creating turnovers.
Again, a tough spot, but the 30-23 win over the Rams three weeks ago should have carryover benefit for a team that has survived a tough one before with its season in the balance.
“I think there are some great lessons we can learn as a football team,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles made the postseason with a win over Washington, “[By] going into a hostile environment against good football teams, offense and defense, special teams included. Obviously, now it’s heightened because it is the playoffs and it’s the wild-card round against a team that defensively has really kind of staked a claim. They’re creating turnovers. They’re getting after the quarterback.”
The win over Los Angeles was the only time this season the Eagles won on the road against a team that would make the playoffs. They lost on the road to New Orleans and Dallas. Last year, they were 2-1 on the road against playoff teams, beating the Rams and Panthers, and losing to the Chiefs. In Pederson’s first season as coach, a building year with a 7-9 overall record, the Eagles were 0-4 on the road against playoff teams.
It’s obvious that beating good teams on the road is the most difficult challenge in the NFL, but the Eagles have done it, and while this season is most certainly not the same as the previous one, there’s something to grab onto from their recent history.
“I think you can draw some conclusions, some parallels from that. The biggest difference now is that we have to go on the road,” Pederson said. “Last year, we had the luxury of having a bye and playing at home for possibly two games. We understand that we’re on the road, but having guys that have been through it – the heightened sense of awareness, the urgency, the sort of do-or-die, backs-against-the-wall mentality – those are all things we can definitely draw from last season’s postseason run [for] this game.”
To beat the Bears, the hip-pocket analysis calls for running effectively, keeping heat off Foles, and not giving away the ball. Well, that will take some doing. Chicago has the top-ranked rushing defense in the league, and also leads the NFL in both takeaways and percentage of passes intercepted.
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When the opponent can run, however, the Bears are vulnerable. They have only given up 100 or more rushing yards in a game four times this season. Three of those were among their four overall losses.
The Eagles aren’t a great running team, but since Darren Sproles has returned, they have an added dimension to complement Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood, and are more efficient with the short passes and screens that act as runs in their hybrid West Coast offense.
Chicago’s offense isn’t anything remarkable, either. Among the 12 playoff teams, only Dallas has gained fewer yards this season than the Bears. But those league-leading 36 takeaways by the defense has given Mitch Trubisky and the offense a lot of short fields.
“You look at that [Bears game Sunday], they are getting after Kirk Cousins, and it’s another challenge. I think going into L.A., and that defense and that offense, prepares us for opportunities like this,” Pederson said. “I even go back to the New Orleans game where, yeah, we didn’t win the game, but I think [learned] from that environment as well.”
Let’s leave aside everything the Eagles learned in that game against the Saints, and focus on the experience of having everything against you, just as it was in Los Angeles, and just as it will be in Soldier Field on Sunday.
If they beat the Bears, they get another crack at the Saints, and maybe that will become part of the new story being told. But it’s best at this time of year to take things one tough spot at a time.