Sunday, December 07, 2008

Not Dead Yet
Timing is everything, I've heard.

Eleven days ago I posted here describing the Eagles as "blind to their own shortcomings and spectacularly adrift." Since then, they've crushed an Arizona Cardinals team that looked to be their match on paper, and just a few minutes ago completed a thorough ass-kicking of the best team in the league, the New York Giants.

The score, 20-14, doesn't convey how thoroughly the Eagles dominated. New York scored one touchdown on a blocked field goal try returned the length of the field at the end of the first half--amazingly, this is the second time this exact soul-crusher of a momentum swing befell the Eagles this season; unfathomably, they've won both games--and another in what amounted to garbage time, when the Eagles gave them the middle of the field and gained more from the Giants' consumption of most of what clock was left than New York did by the seven points. The rest of the time, the Eagles just pushed the defending champions around: they outgained the Giants on the ground, 144 to 88, and held the ball nearly ten minutes longer than New York. The defense didn't make any huge plays--no turnovers, no sacks--but were stout at the line against the NFL's best rushing team, and relentless in pass coverage against Manning and his receivers. Only the Giants' special teams, which accounted for the touchdown on one block and kept three Eagles points off the board when they blocked a second short field goal try, kept it close.

If either team was "adrift" today, it was the host club. Perhaps distracted by the media circus around suspended wideout and handgun enthusiast Plaxico Burress, the Giants simply weren't sharp. Burress's replacement, Dominik Hixon, dropped a likely touchdown pass in the second quarter that would have put New York up 7-3; his was the biggest, but not the only drop. Eli Manning didn't play badly--the drops killed him--but didn't make many plays either. And the Giants' offensive line, so dominant when they ran up and down the field on the Birds last month, was beaten by a smaller but fresher defensive line rotation today. New York was just 3 for 11 on third downs; the Eagles were 11 for 17.

It also now seems clear that where the Eagles previously might have been blind, they can now see: for the second straight contest, they ran the ball successfully and let Donovan McNabb manage the game rather than try to make plays by forcing the ball into tight spots downfield. The Eagles' last scoring drive, an NFL purist's dream, would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. They took over with 9:26 to play, and moved the ball 46 yards on 13 plays in 7:17... 12 of which were runs. The drive consumed all three Giants timeouts before concluding with a field goal that stretched the lead from 10 points to 13.

And it all worked because they stayed with the run: Brian Westbrook wound up setting a career high with 33 carries even after recording these results on his first eight rushes: -5, +4, +5, -1, +3, -2, +3, +2.

His next two? +9, +30 for a touchdown, +11, +5. So after 8 carries, he had 9 yards; after 12, he had 64 and a touchdown.

The Eagles did not play a perfect game. The blocked kick at the end of the half came on a 32 yard try; my guess is that it was one of the shorter blocked field-goal/returned for a score plays in NFL history. Andy Reid burned through all three of his first-half timeouts with more than 14 minutes left in the second corner. And they committed 9 penalties for 73 yards. But they never lost focus, they didn't commit the game-changing mistake late, and they played to their strengths.

I don't want to belabor this too much, but it's sort of hard not to: after pissing away probably four, arguably five possible wins by failures of playcalling and execution, they won a cold-weather road game against a legitimately excellent team that had owned them for two years, and they did it by consistently winning battles at the point of attack. One reaction is, "where the fuck was this when they lost or tied against teams nowhere near the Giants?" the other is, "man, when they're on, they're as good as any team in the NFL."

Anyway, my closing thought in the now ridiculously dumb-looking post from late November was "Perhaps the only solid conclusion is that we all should be less sure of what we 'know.'" With the Eagles resurgent from "totally out of it this year" at 5-5-1 to "still a longshot but clearly good enough if they play to their abilities" at 7-5-1, that much at least still seems true.

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