NFC East: mychal kendricks
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
On Monday, inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks was calling out the defensive signals. That could mean the Eagles want Kendricks to replace DeMeco Ryans in that role, or it could simply mean Kendricks might have to fill in if Ryans gets hurt during a game.
In general, the Eagles' draft picks are running with the second or third teams. That is just coach Chip Kelly's way. It is not necessarily a reflection of where each rookie stands in the coaches' evaluation process.
First-round pick Marcus Smith is working at the left outside linebacker spot. That is Connor Barwin's spot. That doesn't mean Smith is being groomed to replace Barwin. It just means that Brandon Graham is the No. 2 guy on the right side, behind Trent Cole. In time, Smith will learn both spots. For now, six weeks before the start of training camp, the idea is to see how Smith reacts to different situations and coach him as needed.
"It's trying to figure out what those guys can do and what their skill set is and what their strengths and weaknesses are," Kelly said. "And then we'll go from there. But you got to start them somewhere. You can't say, ‘Hey, learn every single position.' Just want to put them at one spot and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are as we evaluate them."
The big difference between last year and this year is that Nick Foles is the clear No. 1 quarterback. Michael Vick is gone. Mark Sanchez is here, but he has been told he's competing with Matt Barkley for the No. 2 spot.
Kelly said it's a "unique situation for Mark because he's probably ahead of where Nick [Foles] and Michael [Vick] were last year because he has Nick to rely on. So everything was new for everybody in the quarterback room last year. ... And he also has probably a lot more experience than a lot of guys. He's played in this league for a long time and has got 60 plus starts."
Sanchez doesn't have quite the standing that Vick had, maybe because none of those 62 starts were for the Eagles. But his experience must give Kelly some comfort going into a season in which Foles will be under more pressure than he's experienced before.
Sanchez said he is still on a "pitch count" -- a limit to how much work his right shoulder can do. But he has established himself as a good teammate, eager to help Foles develop even as he learns from him.
"Having a year under his belt really helps," Sanchez said. "He's really maturing into what I think is a really good quarterback. He's going to be tough to play against for defenses."
That won't really start, as Kelly said, until September. For now, the Eagles' focus is on learning and evaluation. It is, after all, only June.
The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.
“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”
And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.
“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.
Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.
“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”
That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.
Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.
Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.
“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”
Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.
They are perceived as a team "headed in the right direction," as soon-to-be-free-agent safety Jairus Byrd said on ESPN on Tuesday. And they have enormous flexibility thanks to more than $26 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management service.
The Eagles didn't have to release wide receiver Jason Avant for cap purposes. That decision was about paying the $1 million roster bonus negotiated into his contract and due on March 15. But with Avant's departure, the Eagles save another $2.5 million on their cap.
General manager Howie Roseman has set low expectations for the team to make a huge splash in free agency. He could be doing that because he simply doesn't see a free agent worth splurging on, because he wants to prevent potential fan disappointment or because he doesn't want to telegraph his real plans to other teams before the market opens.
Three of the more intriguing names disappeared from a potential wish list this week: Miami extended the contract of cornerback Brent Grimes, Washington placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds signed his transition-tag tender.
The two top safeties, Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward, are expected to hit the market. Roseman has acknowledged his preference to address the safety position in free agency so it isn't a glaring need going into the draft. But he may have his sights set on some of the less expensive players expected to be on the market.
Roseman said last week that his spree of contracts for current Eagles would not limit the Eagles' options in free agency.
"It will affect other things going forward," Roseman said. "We have some flexibility. Obviously, this affects it, the things we've done the past couple of days. But we're going to go out and try to do things that make sense for our football team."
Another thing working in the Eagles' favor is the expansion of the cap this year to $133 million and the expected continuing rise over the next couple of years. That extra cap space comes just as Roseman will have to decide on extensions for players like Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks.
Foles, especially, gives the Eagles a lot of flexibility. Starting quarterbacks can eat up 12 to 15 percent of a team's salary cap. Foles' 2014 salary of $770,880 accounts for 0.65 percent of the Eagles' cap. That's about as much as backup offensive lineman Allen Barbre.
Eventually, if they're going to be successful, the Eagles will have to pay a quarterback that kind of money. For now, they can build a team and deal with Foles -- or someone else if Foles should stumble -- when the cap increases.
"It's hard to look three years out," Roseman said. "It's hard to know where you're going to be after two full seasons and after two draft classes. We do spend a lot of time on the cap next year. We try to be conservative with what the cap projections are going to be."
Finally, there's this reality: The salary cap is not nearly as onerous as it is made out to be. The Dallas Cowboys were in as tight a situation as any team in the NFL going into the new league year. By reportedly reworking quarterback Tony Romo's contract, converting salary to bonus money, the Cowboys resolved their cap issues.
So there is an escape hatch from cap purgatory. The Cowboys still probably won't have the cap space to be proactive in free agency.
The Eagles will. They are in position to do whatever they want.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25
Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.
Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.
Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.
Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.
Here's how the roster shapes up:
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin; safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson; quarterback Michael Vick; defensive end Clifton Geathers, punter Donnie Jones.
The Eagles could lose all of those players without taking a major hit. That doesn't mean those players aren't valuable, merely that they're not irreplaceable. It's not as if LeSean McCoy or Mychal Kendricks or Jason Kelce were free to leave.
My guess is general manager Howie Roseman will make solid market offers to Cooper, Maclin, Allen, Geathers and Jones. He will not overpay for any of them. If some other team does, the Eagles will move on without the player in question.
Players due for contract extensions: Defensive end Cedric Thornton (exclusive rights free agent) and center Jason Kelce.
Let's project to the year 2022. The 35-year-old Kelce announces he is playing his final season after 13 years with the Eagles. That's how things should go with this guy. He's smart, physical, athletic and exactly the kind of player teams should commit to. So yes, extend Kelce.
Thornton was one of the delightful surprises of 2013. An undrafted rookie from Southern Arkansas, he hung around for a couple years without anyone paying much mind. But he's living proof of Chip Kelly's no-expectations approach. Kelly judges based on what a player does, and Thornton was very good this year.
Players who could be gone: Vick, Anderson, Coleman, wide receiver Damaris Johnson, kicker Alex Henery, linebacker Brandon Graham, safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Phillip Hunt (restricted free agent on IR), wide receiver Arrelious Benn, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly.
Mostly self-explanatory. Vick wants to find a place where he can start. Even if he doesn't, the Eagles really like Matt Barkley and may well prefer a younger (read: cheaper) No. 2 behind Nick Foles.
Henery will have competition for the kicking job next summer. Not sure he'll answer that bell. Graham belongs at end in a 4-3 defense and may get a chance to return to one. The Eagles tried to replace Chung over and over but injuries kept him in the lineup.
Johnson lost his return job and never played on offense. Anderson has been a solid special teams guy, but Kelly likes versatility and may prefer a replacement who can fill in on defense, too.
Veterans on the salary-cap bubble: Tight end Brent Celek, linebacker Trent Cole, guard Todd Herremans, wide receiver Jason Avant. They are all good enough players to stay. That, not their cap numbers, should be the deciding factor.
Youth movement: The Eagles signed their practice squad and one other player to futures contracts. They are linebackers Emmanuel Acho, Josh Kaddu and Travis Long; offensive tackle Michael Bamiro; defensive end Brandon Bair; wide receivers Will Murphy, B.J. Cunningham and Ifeanyi Momah, and tight end Emil Igwenagu.
The takeaway here: The Eagles staff spent a lot of time coaching these guys and one or three of them just might become contributors.
It never came. Instead of running onto the field to try to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to one more score, Foles watched the New Orleans Saints celebrate a 26-24 playoff victory. Instead of regrouping for a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers next Sunday, Foles and his teammates will spend the offseason picking at the seams of a game they let slip away.
"It's tough right now," Foles said. "There are a lot of emotions and I'm holding it together. ... I'm hurting inside right now in my heart."
"They killed us slowly," running back LeSean McCoy said. "It was a terrible feeling. There was nothing we could do but watch."
By the time Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, there was nothing they could do. But for the 59 minutes and 57 seconds before that, there was plenty they could have done.
That's why these are the hardest games to lose, the ones in which a dropped pass here, a missed field goal there accumulate like individual snowflakes until a team's hopes are buried in an avalanche. On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles were improbable NFC East champions with a chance to do something special in coach Chip Kelly's first season.
By midnight, they were finished. Buried.
"It's just disappointing," Kelly said. "I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is really disappointed that we're not moving forward."
"I've never been out of the first round of the playoffs," left tackle Jason Peters said. "I felt like this is the year. But we got knocked out and we're at home now. That kickoff, the missed field goal, a couple drops, that sack -- there's a bunch of stuff that went wrong that's messing with me right now. Just got to get over it."
It will take some of them longer to get over than others. Peters is 31. He tore his Achilles tendon twice and had it surgically repaired twice. After missing the entire 2012 season, he returned this year and earned another Pro Bowl berth. He doesn't know how many more chances he's going to get.
Cornerback Cary Williams won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens last year. He was seething after losing this game, to this team, with so much at stake.
"I don't know whether it was the moment or what it was," Williams said. "But we've got to get better in that scenario, in these situations. We failed. We lost to a team that wasn't necessarily better than us. They weren't better than us, period."
Williams was in the middle of the single play that cost the Eagles most dearly. Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Shoot the final gun there and Foles' remarkable season is extended by the kind of fourth-quarter comeback that burnishes quarterbacks' reputations. Instead, the Eagles had to kick off. Darren Sproles took the ball 2 yards inside his own zone and somehow got through the Eagles' first wave of tacklers.
"He broke contain," Williams said. "I'm the safety valve there. I didn't want to dive, because if he steps out of my tackle, it's six points. I just wanted to get the man down, just give our defense a chance to get on the field and make a stop."
"The game came down to us as a defense making a stop, and we knew it was going to come down to that," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Whoever is on the field last has to stand up and make a play."
But it was all the plays before that created the situation:
Foles held the ball too long and took a sack that turned a makeable Alex Henery field goal try into a 48-yard miss.
Wide receiver Riley Cooper dropped a third-down pass in the third quarter with nothing but green in front of him.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks slapped the ball from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's grip, but a replay showed the fumble occurred a moment after Graham's knee touched the ground. Instead of a turnover, the Saints kept the ball and kicked a field goal.
Foles' pass to McCoy on third-and-6 in the red zone picked up 5 yards. Instead of a touchdown and a 21-20 lead, the Eagles kicked a field goal and trailed 20-17.
Those are the little loose threads that the Eagles will pick at when they reflect on this game. It didn't matter that they had exceeded expectations to get to this point. They had a chance to keep playing and they fell short.
"There was a missed opportunity tonight," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. "We were a dangerous team."
They will be a different team in 2014. Change is inevitable. All of them know that. And while there is every reason to expect good things from Kelly and Foles in the future, nothing is certain.
"It hurts whenever you lose a game that you know you should have won," center Jason Kelce said. "We all expected to do a lot better in the playoffs. As a player, the careers don't last very long. The opportunities you get in the postseason, you have to try to seize them. We didn't seize the day here."
Tight end Jason Witten caught 12 passes for 135 yards in a game the Eagles hung on to win, 24-22.
Graham is bigger (6-foot-7), faster and just plain better than Witten at this point in his career. But Witten is probably not the best precedent for gauging the Eagles’ ability to cover Graham. Wide receivers like Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are.
"I think Witten had a great game the other night on us, but he's a great player," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He's a Pro Bowl player and he's going to make those plays. The first game, he didn't have so much but we kind of shifted where we were helping different places, put a little more help on Dez (Bryant). You move it around and great players play great, especially this time of the year when it's playoff football."
In other words, Davis focused on defending Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray. That left Witten more space to operate. The Saints present a number of challenges, but Graham is a lot closer to the top of the list of priorities.
"He's the No. 1 target they have and he's been their most consistent target," Davis said. "He's a big, athletic tight end, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place so it's tough to practice and get a bead on how to help guys on him."
Against those big wide receivers, the Eagles were far from perfect, but they did limit the damage. And that will likely be their approach with Graham. It wouldn’t be surprising if Davis used linebacker Connor Barwin as he did against Fitzgerald and other big wideouts. Barwin would line up at cornerback and jam the receiver, trying to throw him off his route and disrupt his timing. Usually, a defensive back would then pick the receiver up.
Considering how quickly quarterback Drew Brees makes his first read and gets the ball out, that could be enough to get him looking away from Graham at least some of the time.
"It’s a big thing, messing up that timing between he and his receivers," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "With that quick release that he has, it’s going to be huge."
New England used cornerback Aqib Talib to follow Graham all over the field. Davis has not used his corners that way all season. Cary Williams is on the right side and Bradley Fletcher is on the left. It seems unlikely Davis would ask them to change up at this late date.
But it wouldn’t be shocking if Barwin, Kendricks and Trent Cole played Graham physically at the line and then a safety or nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin took over. Boykin can run with anyone, but he gives up nine inches to Graham. That requires a different solution.
"Jump," Kendricks said. "You’re playing ball, man. You’ve just got to go for it. That factor’s not going to change. You’ve got to study him and his routes and attack his hands."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Whatever Chip Kelly and Nick Foles accomplish together as coach and quarterback of the Eagles, in these playoffs and beyond, they will look back on Sunday night's 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys as their first big game together.
And they will know, deep in their hearts, that those unheralded guys on the Philadelphia defense saved their postseason lives.
With a combination of smarts, sports science and magic, Kelly turned the 4-12 Eagles team he inherited into a 10-6 division title winner. Foles, who took over at quarterback in October, went 8-2 as a starter and finished the season as the NFL's highest rated passer.
The Eagles came to Foles' native Texas for a virtual playoff game against the Cowboys. Win and the Eagles would be NFC East champions. They would host the New Orleans Saints in a first-round playoff game Saturday night. They would have a puncher's chance to be that hot team that burns its way to the Super Bowl seemingly every year.
For a half, they had things in hand. Foles threw two touchdown passes, giving him 27 for the season against just two interceptions. His passer rating was 155.5. The Eagles had a 17-10 lead and possession of the ball to start the third quarter.
And then it started unraveling. The offense was brutal in the third quarter. Foles looked overwhelmed, completing 3 of 8 passes for 41 yards and fumbling the ball away at his own 20. It was so bad, Kelly had Foles throw exactly two passes in the entire fourth quarter.
"We made it a game," Eagles left tackle Jason Peters said. "Not scoring, stalling out a couple times on offense. We let them back in the game."
The defense took the game back.
After Foles' fumble, Dallas ran three plays for a total of 2 yards. Linebackers Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin made one-on-one tackles to stop Jason Witten once and DeMarco Murray twice. The Cowboys kicked a field goal and the Eagles clung to their slim, 17-16 lead.
After another three-and-out by Foles and the offense, the Eagles' defense allowed 1 yard on the Cowboys' next possession. That forced a punt that DeSean Jackson, who was held to three catches, returned 23 yards to the Philadelphia 48-yard line.
That was the spark the Eagles needed. They were at midfield instead of their own 20. LeSean McCoy ran three times for 24 yards. Foles completed a short pass that Brent Celek took 22 yards down to the 6-yard line.
That's when Kelly almost outsmarted himself. He couldn't resist bringing Brad Smith in for another of those gimmick plays that look so clever on the dry-erase board. The halfback option pass went incomplete.
"Trying to score," Kelly said. "We thought we would be in man coverage down there. We had a throw back to the quarterback [called]."
Foles threw incomplete on second down. On third down, Jackson caught a ball at the 1-yard line and was held out of the end zone by Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr.
Fourth-and-less-than-a-yard, late in the third quarter.
The book says kick the field goal. Kelly decided to go for it.
"We felt like with the ball on the half-yard line, we've got to be able to punch it in," Kelly said.
They couldn't. Foles was stuffed on the quarterback keeper.
If the Cowboys had seized the momentum there and won, Kelly would have had a very tough time living down the gadget play, the failed fourth down and the non-use of McCoy. That didn't happen, because the Eagles' defense wouldn't let it happen.
"That was an interesting fourth quarter," Kelly said. "Those guys didn't flinch."
The Cowboys drove 59 yards to a fourth-and-1 of their own at the Philadelphia 40-yard line. Jason Garrett decided to go for it. He had a good play call. The Eagles expected a run, so Murray slipped into the flat for a flare pass from Kyle Orton.
Barwin thought it was a run, saw that Orton still had the ball and closed in on him. Orton tried to get it over the 6-foot-4 linebacker's head. He couldn't. Barwin swatted it away. Eagles ball.
"I thought I could catch it," Barwin said. "I knew we were off the field. But I knew there was still some game left to play. I knew it was a big play in the game, but I knew we would be back out there on defense."
It was the first of several signature plays the defense made to save this game for the Eagles. The next was cornerback Cary Williams, breaking up a 2-point conversion pass for Dez Bryant that would have tied the game at 24.
Foles and the offense got the ball back with a chance to run down the clock. Instead, it was another three-and-out, another punt, another save required by the defense.
As it turns out, the Eagles' defense had been through this drill a few times this season. Those home wins against Washington and Arizona came down to late defensive stops.
On first down, needing maybe 30 yards to get within field goal range, Orton threw a pass intended for Miles Austin. It was a little behind him. It wasn't behind Brandon Boykin.
The nickel corner caught it and the Eagles were NFC East champions, Kelly had a division title in his first season and Foles won the first elimination game of his career.
"There's going to be adversity in games," Foles said. "We overcame it today as a team and it was an exciting game to win. I had a blast out there. Our defense was coming up big, special teams played really good ball, and our offense was able to put some points on the board. In those times of adversity, the game's not over. There's still time on the clock. That's how I've always looked at it -- I'm going to play until that clock says zero."
Earlier this season, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said he wouldn't judge Kelly strictly on wins and losses. That was before Lurie knew there would be 10 wins and a home playoff game.
But his larger point still holds true. Lurie hired Kelly because he believed the unorthodox college coach with the cocky grin could build a winning program. His Eagles, on offense and defense and special teams, made a pretty good case this year that Lurie was correct.
"This team has character," Peters said.
That seems clear. And it's just as clear the coach is a character.
"He's a little different than what most coaches are," said Williams, who won a Super Bowl with John Harbaugh in Baltimore last year. "He goes against the grain. It's great."
What it means: Chip Kelly won the NFC East title in his first season as a head coach in the NFL despite a rough night on the sideline. The Eagles' defense bailed Kelly and his offense out, holding the Cowboys to one touchdown and three field goals. Linebacker Connor Barwin batted down a Kyle Orton pass on a crucial fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter to prevent Dallas from taking a late lead. Brandon Boykin intercepted a pass to seal the Eagles' win with 1:43 left. The victory gives the Eagles a 10-6 record -- six more wins than last year -- and a date next Saturday night with the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
Kendricks shows up: Second-year linebacker Mychal Kendricks has shown flashes of excellence all season, often negated by some lapses. He was the Eagles’ best defender all night. Kendricks forced a DeMarco Murray fumble after the Cowboys drove to the Philadelphia 25 on their first possession. He intercepted a pass to set up an Eagles touchdown just before halftime. Kendricks also made some big tackles to hold Murray and Jason Witten to little or no gain in key situations.
Head scratching: Kelly couldn’t resist trying another gimmick play with Brad Smith in the red zone. This time, on first-and-goal at the 6, Smith lined up wide left. He took a handoff from Nick Foles and rolled out to his right. He threw an incomplete pass to Zach Ertz in the end zone. Foles had to throw the ball away on second down, and hit DeSean Jackson for five yards on third. That set up the fourth-and-goal play. Kelly decided to go for it instead of kicking a field goal. Foles was stuffed on the keeper and Dallas had a huge shot of momentum.
Stock watch: Falling: Nick Foles. It didn’t tank completely, but Foles’ stock fell within the game. In the first half, he was terrific, completing 12 of 16 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns -- a passer rating of 155.5. In the second half, Dallas started getting pressure as Foles struggled to get rid of the ball. Foles was 3-of-8 for 41 yards and a passer rating of 54.7 in the third quarter. He was sacked twice in the quarter, fumbling the ball away on his own 20-yard line. It’s the kind of mistake Foles had avoided all season. The defense held the Cowboys to a field goal to minimize the damage.
What’s next: The Eagles host the Saints (11-5) Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. The Saints are 3-5 on the road this season. The Eagles have won their past four home games after enduring a 10-game home losing streak. It will be Kelly’s first NFL playoff game, although he does have plenty of experience coaching on Saturdays.
Some quick thoughts:
Nick Foles told the truth. That first Dallas game was not stuck in his craw. Foles was accurate, authoritative and not afraid to take some risks. He threaded two defenders for a 16-yard throw to Riley Cooper in the first quarter. His jump balls to Jason Avant and Brent Celek set up the Eagles’ second-quarter touchdowns.
LeSean McCoy set the Eagles’ franchise record for rushing yards in a season on a 16-yard run in the second quarter. Wilbert Montgomery’s 1979 record of 1,512 yards lasted 34 years. McCoy had 51 rushing yards in the first half for a season total of 1,527.
Mychal Kendricks was the Eagles’ defensive MVP. He ended the Cowboys’ first drive deep in Eagles territory by knocking the ball out of DeMarco Murray’s hands. (Cornerback Bradley Fletcher recovered.) In the second quarter, Kendricks caught a ball that tight end Jason Witten dropped. The Eagles scored 10 of their 17 points off the two turnovers.
PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly became the Eagles' head coach in January. He might have become Philadelphia's head coach Sunday night.
At about 4 p.m. ET, the Dallas Cowboys beat Washington with a late comeback, robbing the Eagles of a chance to clinch the division against the Chicago Bears. By about 9 p.m., the Eagles had a 21-0 lead on their way to a dominating 54-11 victory over a team that had its own division title on the line.
All that speculation about resting starters for the must-win game in Dallas next Sunday? Forget about it.
"Very simply, we're from Philadelphia and we fight," Kelly said. "If there's a game on, we're playing. End of story. And all this stuff about backing in, not worrying, all these other things, I have no idea.
"So many scenarios. What if there's a tie when we go play Dallas next week and we gave a game away last week? If we're going to line up and kick off, tell us what time to show up and we'll be there."
If there aren't “We're from Philadelphia and we fight” T-shirts rolling off a silk-screen machine somewhere, someone is missing a golden opportunity.
Kelly's demeanor might have been different if one of his key players had been injured. But that didn't happen. Even better, the players who might have been candidates for the injury-avoidance program were the ones who delivered the biggest momentum-building performances of the game.
LeSean McCoy ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns to retain his place atop the NFL rushing leaders list and position himself to break Wilbert Montgomery's franchise record for yards in a season next week. McCoy needs just 37 yards to break the mark of 1,512 yards.
Quarterback Nick Foles was nearly perfect, completing 21 of 25 passes (84 percent) for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Coming off an inconsistent performance against the Vikings, Foles now goes to Dallas with a hot hand.
“I'm just excited to play another game,” Foles said. “I know what's on the line. Everybody knows what's on the line. I'm excited for the opportunity.”
Trent Cole, the oldest player on the Eagles' defense, sacked Jay Cutler on the Bears' third play from scrimmage, setting a tone and forcing the Bears to punt. Cole had three sacks, his most in a game in three years.
“I was very excited for this game,” Cole said. “This is just the start. Coming off a loss like that, it's good for confidence in the team. This does build momentum for us going into Dallas. That's the start of our playoffs right there.”
Kelly convinced his team to treat this as a big game. The way his players responded has to be considered a good sign as they prepare for the franchise's biggest game since a playoff loss to Green Bay here after the 2011 season.
“It's going to be the biggest show on earth,” Cole said. “It's going to be a circus down there, like always.”
“This is what we want,” said linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who sacked Cutler twice and forced a fumble. “We're on the biggest stage. We're in Dallas' stadium, which is a great place to play. We're excited.”
Not only did the Eagles not want to sit this one out, veterans were volunteering for hazardous duty. With key special teamers Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson sidelined by injuries, starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were covering kickoffs -- as if holding receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in check wasn't enough to worry about.
“Whatever it takes, man,” Williams said. “No 'I' in 'team.' Coach needed me to do that, then dang it, I'm going to do it. It didn't matter. It was a great game plan we had in place. There were a lot of DBs out there. It didn't bother us, because the game was so significant. We wanted to get back to winning ways.”
Fletcher forced Bears kickoff returner Devin Hester to fumble in the first quarter. Williams recovered, giving the Eagles the ball at the Chicago 39.
“That's what we do,” nickel corner and special-teams regular Brandon Boykin said. “That's our personality. The starters on kickoffs, that's the want-to, that's the attitude of our team. Get the job done no matter who's out there.”
The Eagles scored on McCoy's 1-yard run five plays later, their second touchdown in 2 minutes, 10 seconds. It was 14-0, and the Eagles were on their way.
It was hard to believe they were the same players who got crushed by the Vikings the week before.
“Redeeming ourselves,” Boykin said. “That was huge, man. It was a great team win. Knowing where we are, knowing our possibilities, we wanted to come out and get our momentum rolling again. Especially at home, Sunday night football. There's nothing better.”
It's also hard to believe this is the same Eagles offense that failed to score a touchdown against the Cowboys here in the teams' first meeting this season. That was Oct. 20. The Eagles lost the next week to the Giants, falling to 3-5 at the midway point of the season.
They are 6-1 since then, with the only loss that mystifying game in Minnesota.
“We stumbled when we were in Minnesota,” Kelly said. “Minnesota beat us and played better than us that day. But we weren't going to let Minnesota beat us twice.”
Now the task is not letting Dallas beat them twice. Win next week, and they earn the No. 3 seed in the NFC. For Kelly, it also would mean eliminating the rival Cowboys. There's no better way to win over Eagles fans.
“One down, one to go,” Kelly said.
Safeties Kurt Coleman (hamstring) and Colt Anderson (knee) are out. That has more impact on the Eagles' special teams than their defense. Both players are key members of the kicking and return teams.
That gives defensive coordinator Bill Davis close to a full complement of defensive backs as he tries to cope with the Bears' array of receiving options. Chicago likes to use wide receiver Brandon Marshall in the slot a fair percentage of the time.
Although the Eagles have faced Denver's group, Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, Boykin said he thought the Bears' Marshall and Alshon Jeffery presented the biggest overall challenge to the secondary.
"You're talking about guys that are 6-3, 6-4 and they're both playing at a very, very high level," Boykin said. "Normally, you might have two big guys, but one of them is better than the other. I don't think that's the case. They can throw to either one of them."
"Whenever the quarterback throws the ball in the air," Wolff said, "they go and get it. Those are the big plays we're going to have to stop. I feel like we're up for the challenge."
Wolff may be eased back into action after missing so much time. Patrick Chung could start and play a fair amount.
"I feel like I came in this week in a groove more than I was last week," Wolff said. "Last week, I was still kind of trying to get back into it. Now I feel like I'm pretty much back to where I was before."
As for special teams, the Eagles are likely to have linebacker Najee Goode back from his hamstring injury. He was also listed as questionable. Keelan Johnson, a safety signed off the practice squad earlier in the week, could also be active and help fill in for Coleman and Anderson.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks (knee) and wide receiver/special teamer Brad Smith (hamstring) were also listed as questionable.
For those of us on the outside, every game of Kelly's first NFL season has been like a chapter in a book. We learn a little more about Kelly, his offense, his characteristics as a coach, his play calling. There were several chapters devoted to his quarterbacks, Michael Vick and then Nick Foles.
Sunday's 34-20 game against the Detroit Lions was different. The snow and its impact on the game made it impossible to learn anything about Kelly's approach to a tough defense, about Foles' ability to rise to the occasion in a big game, about anything to do with X's and O's.
"Everything went out the window," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "We played a completely different game than what we practiced for."
There was an important lesson about this team in this chapter. The Eagles took control over the game from the Lions largely because they took a better, smarter approach to the situation. Faced with heavy snow and treacherous footing, they embraced the novelty of the day and made the most of it.
"We were saying this is a game we're always going to remember," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "It's going to be a lot better to remember if we win."
Wide receiver Riley Cooper looked miserable in the early going. The native of Clearwater, Fla., looked like he'd been dropped on some hostile planet and forced to adapt. By the second half, Cooper was making spectacular catches -- including a 44-yard gain that injected life into the offense and a vital two-point conversion -- and rolling around in the snow like a polar bear cub.
The Eagles offensive line figured out how to keep their balance, slow their movements and get good push against the Lions' celebrated defensive line. That was the difference in the game.
The Eagles defense switched from its two-gap based approach to simpler, more direct gap control. That move allowed the Eagles to shut down the Lions running game even as LeSean McCoy was being freed on the other side of the ball.
Both teams were faced with unique circumstances that made their week of preparation basically useless to them. We may never know if the Eagles could have covered Calvin Johnson in better conditions or if the Lions defensive front would have smothered McCoy and pressured Foles into more errors.
The game wasn't a true test of the merit of the two football teams. But the Eagles turned it into an important win and the Lions allowed it to become a painful loss.
So the rest of us learned something about the Eagles from this chapter of the book. After two years of watching a team that accepted losing, this team keeps pushing until it finds a way to win.
As for Kelly himself?
"I didn't learn anything," Kelly said. "I knew exactly what those guys were going to be like. I think maybe some other people did, but I didn't have any question in my mind what was going to go on in that football game because I've been around these guys every single day."
A week ago, as he prepared for the Arizona Cardinals, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis declared Larry Fitzgerald “probably still the best receiver in the league.” A week later, Davis was asked about Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, this week’s challenge for the Eagles defense.
“Well, he's 6-foot-5 and his range, he's got a huge vertical,” Davis said. “So his radius, his catch radius, is second to none. There are similar players that are big bodied, go up and get the ball away from their body. They snatch it well out of the air. Fitzgerald is one of the top in the NFL, but Calvin is the best when you watch him game in and game out, what he does and what he can do at that size/speed ratio. He’s the best.”
There are pluses and minuses to facing Fitzgerald and Johnson in consecutive weeks. Preparing and dealing with Fitzgerald can help the Eagles defenders be ready for the challenge of dealing with Johnson. On the other hand, Davis’ scheme for dealing with big, talented wideouts is right there on Sunday’s game tape for the Lions staff to dissect.
“There will be some carryover,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “We installed some certain things for big, productive receivers like Fitz. There will obviously be some carryover this week. But it’s not all going to be the same.”
So how did Davis defend Fitzgerald? Let’s just say it took a village. If teams with a shutdown corner try to match him on Johnson all over the field, Davis took the opposite approach. Nine different Eagles had primary coverage on Fitzgerald during the course of the game. Along with the obvious guys -- defensive backs Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Nate Allen and Patrick Chung -- Davis had all four of his linebackers cover Fitzgerald at different times.
Barwin, especially, lined up across from Fitzgerald as a cornerback. Usually, he was in the slot, but on a couple plays Barwin was basically an outside corner. His job was to jam Fitzgerald, disrupt his route and his timing, then usually give him up to a defensive back.
Trent Cole did surprisingly well on the few times he dropped into coverage with Fitzgerald. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks ran with him on several plays down the middle before quarterback Carson Palmer found Fitzgerald for a first-down completion in the fourth quarter.
Williams slapped one ball away as Fitzgerald attempted to catch it. Fletcher and Allen did a good job limiting his yardage on quick outs. Boykin made the single biggest play, leaping to bat a pass away in the end zone just before the Cardinals’ final touchdown. Chung blanketed Fitzgerald in the end zone on the play in which Roc Carmichael drew a pass interference call at the 1-yard line.
Fitzgerald’s biggest play, of course, was his 43-yard touchdown catch on a third-and-20 play. Boykin had excellent coverage on the play, but he and Chung collided just as the ball arrived. They went down in a heap, allowing Fitzgerald to sprint the last 26 yards untouched.
Palmer threw the ball 41 times. He targeted Fitzgerald eight times, completing five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. That’s not exactly shutting a receiver down, but if the Eagles can limit Johnson to that kind of damage, they’ll have a very real chance of beating Detroit. Johnson is that good.
“The combination of his size and his speed and explosiveness, I don’t think there’s anybody else like that in this league,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “He can just go get the football.”
In other words, Johnson is the best there is. This week, at least.