NFC East: Browns-Eagles
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
In watching last night's game, we were reminded how lethal Donovan McNabb can be when he has time in the pocket. You could tell he was playing with supreme confidence because he was delivering balls into tight windows downfield. He's much better on downfield throws than he is on short passes, and that was certainly on display against the Browns.
Why did the Browns not bring more pressure? I'm still asking myself that question. John Fisher of ESPN Stats and Analysis told the NFC East blog this morning that McNabb was 20 of 23 for 226 yards and two touchdowns when the Browns rushed four or fewer defenders.
When the Browns rushed five or more players, McNabb was 6 of 12 for 64 yards and an interception. If you give the man enough time, he'll pick you apart. And if you stayed up late to watch the ESPN postgame show, you heard McNabb say that he's still not pleased with how the benching went down and that he doesn't think it has anything to do with his personal improvement.
Well, I'm not so sure. In the three games since Andy Reid sat him down, McNabb has thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception. Except for the underthrown ball in the end zone late in the first half, he was nearly flawless against the Browns. This team is rolling.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has always been at his best when he's winging the ball deep. His touch on short passes has never been great and he seems to flourish when he has time to throw longer routes. On Monday, McNabb had a perfect passer rating on throws of 10 yards or more.
|Jim McIsaac/Getty Images|
|Donovan McNabb and the Eagles have won three straight.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PHILADELPHIA -- Tease or contender?
Playoff bound or delaying the inevitable?
These questions still remain unanswered following the Philadelphia Eagles' easy 30-10 romp over the Cleveland Browns on "Monday Night Football." The Eagles (8-5-1) are playing their best football of the season, outscoring their last three opponents 98-44, but they remain on the outside of the NFC playoff race.
Over the past four years, the postseason has begun in December for the Eagles. This has been both a blessing and a curse during the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb era in Philadelphia.
For whatever reason, the Eagles in recent seasons have slumped at midseason but found a way to finish strong. Sometimes it leads to a postseason berth. Other times, such as last season, the team falls short.
Philadelphia is trying desperately to avoid back-to-back non-playoff seasons for the first time under Reid. In addition to Monday's win over Cleveland, the Eagles will need to sweep a pair of NFC East rivals -- the Washington Redskins (7-7) and Dallas Cowboys (9-5) -- to have a chance.
"The players understand what's at stake," Reid said of the final two weeks. "You saw that by their effort tonight. They played a very aggressive game on both sides of the ball and special teams."
But don't read too much into Monday's victory.
Cleveland, losers of four straight, was the perfect prey for the surging Eagles. The Browns (4-10) have a coach in the hot seat, two injured quarterbacks, and they haven't scored an offensive touchdown since Nov. 17.
The Eagles were sloppy at times with three turnovers. But Philadelphia took care of business by jumping out to a 17-3 lead and never looked back. The 20-point win could have been more lopsided had the Eagles not thrown two interceptions in the end zone and pulled their starters early in the fourth quarter.
"Our guys tried," Browns head coach Romeo Crennel said. "But I don't think we have enough ammunition to match up with them."
The Eagles have been among the most schizophrenic teams in the NFL this season. The same team that blew out the Arizona Cardinals by four touchdowns on Thanksgiving lost to the Baltimore Ravens by 29 points and benched McNabb five days prior.
Now McNabb is back. He looks far removed from the lowest point of his career and put up another stellar game Monday, completing 26 of 35 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 105.7 passer rating.
"He's playing like he does," Reid said. "This is what Donovan McNabb is all about."
McNabb and the Eagles need to maintain this level of play. McNabb is once again playing confident football and the vintage smile is back on the face of the veteran quarterback.
"I'm always happy. I'm happy to be out here just playing football and that's the most important thing," McNabb said. "That's something I told myself no matter what situation I'm in, I'm going to have a ball out here and the people around me are going to enjoy it, too."
The Eagles will need to upend two teams that beat them earlier in the year in Washington and Dallas. Philadelphia believes it's a different team now, but a pair of wins still could leave the team sitting at home.
But this is usually the type of situation that brings the best out of the Eagles. Whether it works this year or it's too late remains to be seen.
Don't underestimate what the Eagles did Monday night against the Browns. They've had a penchant for allowing inferior teams to stay in games with them -- or even tie them. But in a 30-10 victory, the Eagles imposed their will on the Browns from the start.
They exposed backup quarterback Ken Dorsey early and were able to keep the ball for nearly 38 minutes. Last week, Andy Reid depended on the running game to beat the Giants. But on Monday, he turned Donovan McNabb loose, and the quarterback responded with a superb effort. He was 26 of 35 for 290 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. McNabb has thrown seven touchdowns and only the one interception in the three games since he was benched against the Ravens.
After Monday's game, he told ESPN once again that he didn't like being the "scapegoat" three weeks ago, but you can't argue with the results following the benching. Against a pretty good secondary, McNabb was able to fit the ball into some very tight spots. He completed passes to nine different players and Jason Avant had 101 yards receiving. McNabb waited for the Browns to line up in Cover 3 and then he started working the cornerbacks over.
Westbrook only had 16 carries for 53 yards -- and that may have been by design. Coming off a 33-carry game, Reid didn't want to push Westbrook. With the Eagles up 17-3 at halftime, the Browns didn't have a legitimate shot at a comeback.
The Browns have no running game and their passing game relies too heavily on Braylon Edwards. In the past, the Eagles have messed around against bad teams. On Monday, they scored on five of their first seven drives and didn't have to punt until the game had already been decided. If Philadelphia can get past a fading Redskins team at FedEx Field on Sunday, they'll be 9-5-1 heading into the final game of the season against the Cowboys.
We often complain about teams tanking games at the end of the season in order to avoid injuries. It would be nice to see the Cowboys and the Eagles playing for a single playoff spot.
On defense, linebacker Stewart Bradley had a big game with six tackles and a key interception and Asante Samuel had an interception and his first touchdown as an Eagle. Trent Cole and Quintin Demps each had sacks, but the Eagles' defense didn't spend much time on the field.
The Browns were 3 of 12 on third downs and were held to 196 total yards. It was a dominating performance for the Eagles. Now, it's time to focus on the Redskins.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Browns quarterback Ken Dorsey has cause to worry about Monday's game against the Eagles. Cleveland hasn't had a lot of "Monday Night Football" opportunities (until this season), but for some reason, the game's never a good sign for their quarterbacks. Thanks to Ryan McCrystal of ESPN Stats & Information, here's the disturbing breakdown:
For years, it seemed like a good thing that the Eagles played their best football in December. Now, it's probably starting to feel a bit maddening for their fans.
Since Andy Reid took over as head coach in 1999, the Eagles are a staggering 28-12 in December. The only losing December came in 2005 -- when the Eagles finished 1-3 following the T.O. debacle (OK, sorry I brought it up).
At one point this decade, the Eagles reached the NFC title game four straight seasons -- and winning Decembers were just a sign that they were peaking at the right time. In recent years, though, strong Decembers were required to make up for tepid Septembers and Octobers. In 2006, Jeff Garcia relieved an injured Donovan McNabb and the Eagles finished with five consecutive wins (all in December) to qualify for the playoffs.
|Rich Kane/US Presswire|
|Andy Reid and the Eagles have won back-to-back games heading into Monday night.|
In 2007, the Eagles finished with three straight wins, but they were sitting home during the playoffs with an 8-8 record. For whatever reason, the team refuses to leave itself any margin for error. And that's why the Eagles are in another single-elimination situation as they prepare for Monday night's game (ESPN, 8:30 ET) against the 4-9 Cleveland Browns.
"I think the Super Bowl year (2004) was the only time we played a complete season," said veteran right tackle Jon Runyan, a 13-year veteran. "We have huge lulls in the beginning and the middle of the season before we get things going."
The Eagles' final two games are at Washington and at home against another wild-card contender, the Cowboys. We all thought the tie against the Bengals was a crushing blow, but the prospect of a 10-5-1 record doesn't sound half bad.
Runyan, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, said Reid's responsible for the Eagles' strong finishes. He thinks Reid's ability to stay "even keel" causes players not to panic when they drop games early in the season. But the Eagles saw a different side of Reid in the wake of the loss to the Ravens three weeks ago. Even though it seemed like a desperate move at the time, his benching of McNabb sent a clear message to the rest of the team.
"He did it to create a spark," Runyan said of Reid. "It's the whole thing about making an example out of a player. He told guys to start producing or they wouldn't be around."
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
I was talking to longtime Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan about his knee injury Saturday night when our conversation shifted to his former teammate Terrell Owens. Runyan's one of those veteran players who has a great sense of perspective, so I couldn't help but ask him about the latest T.O. saga.
"It's a 24-hour soap opera," he joked. "That's his personality. People think it's gonna change, but that's how you are. When things are going good, everything's great. But when it goes bad, people's true colors come out."
Runyan said he was listening to sports-talk radio (WIP) Saturday morning in Philly and heard former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas talking about a reported verbal altercation Friday between T.O. and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. Runyan saw the obvious irony, because it was Douglas' altercation with T.O. that helped signal the end of the receiver's tenure with the Eagles in 2005. Douglas was the club's ambassador to fans at the time, and he's now a local radio personality.
"It's already happened here," Runyan said. "We know exactly what they're going through. The problem is that it divides the team. People are drawing lines and taking sides."
For the record, Runyan said he expects to start against the Browns on Monday. He practiced Wednesday before sitting out the next three days.
"Yeah, I don't think it's in doubt," he said of his status.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Could someone remind me what the Giants' controversy was all about? With the drama at Valley Ranch, it's hard to remember. When I talked to Giants defensive end Justin Tuck about the Cowboys' story, he had a long laugh. Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens has now come out and said he's not jealous of the Tony Romo-Jason Witten relationship, as was reported by ESPN's Ed Werder. But since we actually have a game Sunday, let's talk about it a little bit.
The Cowboys like some of their matchups against the Giants' receivers. You'll see a lot more man-to-man coverage now that Plaxico Burress isn't playing. Terence Newman will probably cover Domenik Hixon. And look for rookie Orlando Scandrick to end up on Steve Smith quite a bit.
Now we know that running back Brandon Jacobs has been ruled out of Sunday's game and he'll be replaced by Derrick Ward. The Cowboys will still crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run, but Jacobs is a big loss. It's looking like Marion Barber will try to play now that he's been called out by owner Jerry Jones.
Back to the current controversy at Valley Ranch, coach Wade Phillips ordered his players not to talk about the "secret meeting" that took place between three receivers and Jason Garrett on Monday. He wants them focused on Sunday's game, which seems like a good idea.
The Giants were embarrassed by their performance against the Eagles. They were beaten up at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line isn't producing sacks right now, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has decided to go back to some of the blitz packages that were working earlier in the season.
It didn't seem possible after the Ravens game three weeks ago, but now the Eagles are back in the playoff race. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is in a much better rhythm, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Andy Reid is showing some commitment to the running game. This team will go as far as Brian Westbrook can take it. When he's healthy, he's a top-five player in this league. He's still banged up, but he'll be able to play against the Browns.
For whatever reason, the Eagles seem to play their best football late in the season. And the defense isn't getting enough credit for the way it played against the Giants. The defensive line won the battle up front and stopped the best running game in football.
The Eagles aren't getting a ton of sacks, but they're throwing off the rhythm of opposing quarterbacks. They're about to encounter a quarterback, Ken Dorsey, who's pretty limited. The Eagles will play a lot of press coverage in order to give their defensive ends and linebackers more time to get to Dorsey. The Browns are out of the playoff race and Romeo Crennel will probably get fired at the end of the season. But their biggest win of the season came on "Monday Night Football" against the Giants. The Eagles have struggled against inferior teams (see the Bengals), so it's important to take control of the game immediately.
Most of the attention has been on the Clinton Portis-Jim Zorn dispute this week, but the Redskins have to win a football game. There's been a lot of frustration because of the losing and all the injuries. This football team built its reputation around its running game in the first half of the season. After the loss to the Steelers dropped them to 6-3, the Redskins started seeing everyone stack the line of scrimmage with eight or nine players.
Receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El can't get any separation right now, and quarterback Jason Campbell's confidence is not high. This was a team that has lost its identity. And the frustrating thing for Redskins fans is that their team had a relatively easy schedule in the second half.
Could Washington run the table and sneak into the playoffs? Stranger things have happened. But Todd Collins led that charge last season. This offense doesn't feel like it's about to take off, although the Bengals would be a good place to start.
To his credit, linebacker London Fletcher has continued to play unbelievably well despite the fact that he's injured. Zorn ne
eds to head off this controversy before he loses all the gains he made early in the season. Nothing helps a coach's credibility as much as winning. And the Redskins have to start Sunday.
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
I've found the guys at Scouts Inc. to be a tremendous resource throughout the season. Gary Horton watches all the film and then provides some interesting nuggets each week:
- "Without wide receiver Plaxico Burress , Eli Manning did not see many rolled coverages before the snap," writes Horton. "Instead, the Eagles played balanced coverages, which didn't allow him to make any pre-snap reads. He was forced to read the defense after the snap, which is a lot tougher."
- "Philadelphia designed a game plan that caters to Donovan McNabb 's skills," says Horton. "Their passing game has become short and safe with shovel passes and screens. The coaches also seem to be designing more rollouts and bootlegs to take advantage of McNabb's ability to extend the play and break down defenses."
That's an interesting observation by Horton. In my mind, McNabb's always been more of a downfield passer. He actually struggled with his accuracy on some of the shorter passes. It makes sense that he's playing better, in part, because a healthy Brian Westbrook makes the offense 10 times more explosive. And Reid's commitment to the running game actually opened up some things in the passing game. The Eagles have been designing rollouts and bootlegs for most of the season. The only difference now is that they're working. On a sour note, there's a chance they cough one up on "Monday Night Football." These are the same Browns that took down the mighty Giants on MNF. They don't play well on Sunday, but on Mondays, the Browns are ready to go.