NFL Nation: nick foles

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Speaking to Pro Football Talk Live soon after the news conference introducing quarterback Nick Foles to the St. Louis media, Rams coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged that he had turned down a first-round pick in exchange for quarterback Sam Bradford before making the deal with Philadelphia.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe Rams were much more comfortable with Nick Foles than trying to trade up and draft a quarterback.

That echoed a sentiment offered by Eagles coach Chip Kelly last week after he made the deal for Bradford. On Tuesday, reports surfaced from NFL Network's Charley Casserley that it was the Cleveland Browns who had tried to trade for Bradford, using the No. 19 overall pick in this year's draft as bait. ESPN's Adam Caplan followed up by clarifying that the Rams were indeed offered the No. 19 pick from Cleveland before moving on to the Eagles' offer.

Which probably brings up the question of why. More often than not, a first-round pick is the greatest currency a team can have. The Rams have stockpiled picks in recent years and the chance to get a second first-round pick again in 2015 would seem too good to pass up.

But the explanation for the Rams passing on Cleveland's offer to take Philadelphia's really isn't that complicated. Unlike when the Rams made the 2012 trade with Washington, the Rams had a quarterback situation that was clearly unsettled this time around.

Fisher offered this explanation:

“There were some discussions, yes, but from our standpoint, the first-round pick — obviously it’s attractive, but you still don’t have a quarterback," Fisher told PFT Live. "It’s a late pick and then would we move up and get into position to draft one? It didn’t make sense to us."

The key here is that the pick obviously would have given the Rams two-first round choices at Nos. 10 and 19, but would that have been enough to move up to get one of the two quarterbacks considered the best choices in this year's draft in Oregon's Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston? If the draft had been closer, perhaps that's a deal that could be made if one of the two were to slide, but the only way to guarantee landing either would be to move all the way up to No. 2 in a deal with the Tennessee Titans.

And that assumes the Rams even like whoever they think is the No. 2 quarterback in this year's class, presumably Mariota. Clearly, in the end, they preferred to have Foles over taking the risk that they could both get in position to land one of Mariota or Winston and develop either into the type of player that would help them win this year.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Rams wouldn't draft one of those players should they get the opportunity, but for now, it should be no surprise that Foles represents a safer option for a regime entering an important fourth year together.

"Long story short, the reason that made our trade the other day the right fit was the addition of Nick Foles," general manager Les Snead said. "Our conundrum at quarterback was going to require an addition and what made it work is this: You have got a young guy who has got a lot of physical skills to play in this league. Hey, he’s got a lot of metrics that show you how he can produce on the field."

Even though Foles still comes with his share of question marks, there are far fewer there than with anything that would've come with that 19th pick. Which is why the Rams made the right choice in taking Philadelphia's offer instead of Cleveland's.

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In what would turn out to be one of the last four games quarterback Nick Foles would play for the Philadelphia Eagles before being traded to the St. Louis Rams, Foles' Eagles jumped out to a commanding 34-7 lead late in the third quarter.

Foles had played a minor role in establishing that lead as the Eagles scored a defensive and special-teams touchdown but he had tossed a pair of touchdown passes to push the lead further. After hitting receiver Jeremy Maclin for a 24-yard touchdown to take a 34-7 lead, Foles watched as the Rams forged a furious fourth-quarter comeback.

The Rams scored three straight touchdowns to narrow the margin to 34-28 and had a possession with a chance to win the game before coming up short. Foles wasn't too familiar with the Rams before that meeting, but the Rams' comeback attempt left an impression.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/USA TODAY SportsRams coach Jeff Fisher said he admires the way Nick Foles is able to deliver the ball downfield.

"I remember playing this team and thinking this is a talented team, the defense is scrappy, all over the place, really tough to go against," Foles said. "The thing I really noticed, though, was the fight. I admire teams that continue to fight. Philadelphia had gotten up by several [scores] and the Rams kept fighting back, fighting back. That’s when you know that team is together as one, the coaching staff is working together, the players are fighting together. And they were in the game at the end. I really admired that and I looked back and said, ‘That is a team that is going to be reckoned with.’"

Now, after the headline-making deal that sent Foles, a 2015 fourth-round pick and a 2016 second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for quarterback Sam Bradford and a 2015 fifth-round choice, Foles will have his chance to play with that team.

As Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead introduced Foles late last week, Fisher quickly endorsed Foles as his starting quarterback. Fisher and Snead both made mention of the fact that they wouldn't have done the trade were it not for Foles' inclusion. It's even been said that the Rams turned down a first-round pick for Bradford because of their excitement about Foles.

Of course, it's worth taking all of that praise with a grain of salt given that Bradford was receiving similar plaudits from Rams leadership just a few weeks ago, and this is the time of year when true plans are only revealed by action or a lack thereof. But to hear Fisher tell it, Foles is a fit for what the Rams want to do offensively.

"It’s what he did in college, what he was able to accomplish there, the system he was in," Fisher said. "We went back and watched his first year with Andy [Reid], watched him finish up the year. Then ’13 was just so impressive what he was able to do, all the throws. We really feel like he fits into our style of offense, the mobility, the athleticism and he loves to put it down the field. He’ll be the first to tell you he likes to put it down the field. And we’ve got guys who can do that."

To put a finer point on it, Foles' role in the offense won't be drastically different from what Bradford would have been asked to do. Fisher is committed to having a run-first offense that spins any ground success into taking shots via play-action. That's an area where Foles has excelled.

According to Pro Football Focus, Foles is 121-of-210 for 1,924 yards with 21 touchdowns and three interceptions over the past two seasons when throwing off of play-action. That could bode well for Foles in St. Louis though he doesn't have guys like Maclin and DeSean Jackson on his side as he did when he was piling up those numbers.

On the flip side, Foles has had injury issues, including a broken collarbone that ended his 2014 season halfway through. Although Foles says he's at "180 percent" right now, that might not be a permanent condition if the Rams can't find some offensive linemen to protect him. And Foles has struggled when coming under pressure.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foles has completed just 40 percent of his passes for 1,209 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 57.4 and a 6.7 QBR when under pressure in his three seasons. In Philadelphia, that wasn't too detrimental because he wasn't under pressure that much, but the Rams still have to prove they can run the ball well enough to open things up and protect Foles well enough to give him chances to push the ball down the field.

Either way, Foles is pleased to have a chance to prove himself outside the realm of Chip Kelly's offense.

"It’s definitely a new start but I’m going to continue to be me," Foles said. "I think being the best quarterback you can be is just being who you are, so I’m excited to just get to know my teammates and get to know the locker room because that’s what it’s about. ... But sticking together like I said, which I admired of the Rams last season, that’s what I love about it and I just want to help add to it."

Free-agency review: Rams

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
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Most significant signing: The St. Louis Rams signed four players during the opening week, and the sum of those moves is greater than any of the single parts. Retaining receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Lance Kendricks should allow the Rams to have some continuity on their offense, though some would argue that isn't necessarily a good thing given that group's struggles. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams got a couple of new toys in defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker Akeem Ayers. Both should provide depth and give Williams even more ways to mix and match pieces. None of those moves is necessarily more significant than the other, but all were sensible and mostly cost-effective.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonOne of the Rams' biggest surprises of free agency was the move to trade for QB Nick Foles.

Most significant loss: The only loss the Rams suffered that wasn't by choice was the departure of quarterback Shaun Hill to the Minnesota Vikings. The Rams wanted to keep Hill and pushed to make that happen, but Hill's market turned out to be more lucrative than they could have imagined. Minnesota came strong with a two-year deal worth $6.5 million, and the Rams elected not to go to those links. Instead, the Rams traded a 2016 seventh-round pick to Houston to reacquire quarterback Case Keenum.

Biggest surprise: The biggest move of the first week also probably came as the biggest surprise, at least given what the Rams were saying publicly before it happened. The Rams traded quarterback Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for quarterback Nick Foles, with draft picks also going both ways. Despite consistent rumors the Rams were interested in Foles and the obvious salary-cap savings that would come with parting ways with Bradford, the Rams continued to say Bradford was their guy, even going so far as asking his approval before promoting Frank Cignetti to offensive coordinator and hiring quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead insist they meant it when they said Bradford would be their quarterback, but clearly they had at least some intention of making the move all along. That's all part of the deal during the silly season that is free agency and the draft as teams try to maneuver for players. And, if it didn't work out for the Rams, publicly declaring they wanted to trade Bradford would have been a risky proposition if they didn't get an offer they liked and had to bring him back. In the end, the Rams got a good deal and can finally move forward with a fresh start at the game's most important position.

What's next: The Nos. 1, 2 and 3 priorities have to be on the offensive line. The Rams have openings at center, right tackle and one-guard position. They'd like to retain right tackle Joe Barksdale, and it seems his market hasn't developed as hoped, so the Rams might be able to keep him on the rebound. At guard, the Rams have interest in Justin Blalock, who fits the scheme and could be a solid short-term starter while they add help in the draft. At center, Oakland's Stefen Wisniewski has also been connected to the Rams and is the best pivot left on the market. Blalock and Wisniewski could visit St. Louis as soon as this week. The Rams have the cap space to add two of those three players but could easily create more room to get all three if they wanted.


EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Poor Nick Foles. Surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of a glorified pep rally Friday afternoon at Rams Park, Foles was supposed to be the center of attention as the new, albeit possibly temporary, face of the St. Louis Rams franchise.

But Foles' first chance to meet with the St. Louis media went largely under the radar as coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead attempted to offer explanations of how the seismic shift in their quarterback room came about.

After Fisher surprised the staff in attendance by trotting out about to sign defensive tackle Nick Fairley, he introduced Foles before turning it over to Snead. For those who might not remember, it was at February's NFL scouting combine and in the week before it in which Snead and Fisher had repeatedly and emphatically expressed their confidence in Sam Bradford as the quarterback.

Although the Rams had been rumored to have interest in Foles as early as the Senior Bowl in January, it was at the combine where plans for Bradford started down a path that would lead to Philadelphia.

In Indianapolis, a rumor popped up that Bradford was being shopped around. At the time, the spin was that Bradford's camp was being given an opportunity to shop around to get a better gauge on what his value might be for a pay cut. Because Bradford was due to count $16.58 million against the cap in 2015, the Rams had been very clear that they wanted that number reduced. The theory was getting a chance to shop Bradford, to find out his value to other teams, might yield a middle ground.

Although it's unclear exactly how much of a pay cut the Rams wanted Bradford to take, there have been strong indications that the numbers came in below what he might have been able to fetch on the free-agent market.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonNick Foles (center), flanked by head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, said he started hearing rumors about the Rams' interest in him at the Super Bowl.
Back on the Lucas Oil Stadium podium, speaking to reporters, Snead was taken aback by a question about Bradford's availability and made the comment that "deleting" Bradford wasn't the best move for the team. Fisher followed two days later by declaring reports about Bradford's availability were "inaccurate" and had previously noted that Bradford was involved in the hiring of Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator and Chris Weinke as quarterbacks coach.

According to Snead, soon after his turn on the dais he began receiving calls about Bradford, gauging the Rams interest in a trade.

"We went to the combine, we had never heard anything about a trade, nobody had mentioned wanting to trade for Sam Bradford," Snead said. "Deleting him wasn’t going to be the solution. Obviously when news like that breaks, guess what? Some other teams start babbling. I think the first team approached me at the combine at some point and said, ‘Hey, when you get off the elevator, can we chat?"

As Snead tells it, the Rams started getting interest only after the "news broke" that the Rams were interested in trading Bradford. But that "breaking news" wasn't made up; it had to have come from somewhere, right? Bradford's camp was caught off guard by the rumors, which likely means it wasn't that side leaking the information.

"I was at the podium," Snead said. "I forget who asked the question. I’m not sure where he got it from. You’ll have to figure out who asked. It’s been squirrely."

In the meantime, no progress was made on reducing Bradford's salary. The longer that stalemate lasted, the more the Rams began looking at their options.

"It was an issue, and it was an issue that was addressed for quite some time," Fisher said. "And it was not an issue with respect to the transaction as far as they were concerned."

Asked if Bradford would be in St. Louis had he agreed to a pay cut, Fisher responded, "probably not." Fisher spoke to Bradford on Tuesday morning and informed him that they were discussing trades and which teams they were discussing them with.

For his part, Bradford told the Philadelphia media he knew of a possible move to the Eagles about three or four weeks ago. Foles told 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis he had started hearing rumors of going to St. Louis around the Super Bowl.

Fisher said two hours after his conversation with Bradford, the deal with Philadelphia was consummated. It was a deal that was probably in the works much longer than the Rams let on, but they insisted Friday that acquiring Foles was the key to it all.

"When we said deleting Sam wasn’t the answer, that was true," Snead said. "When Coach Fish said that was his QB, that was true because at that moment there was no trade and there was definitely nobody like Nick coming in the building."

Fisher has declared Foles the starter and offered a strong commendation on Case Keenum, whom the team reacquired from Houston for a seventh-round pick soon after the Bradford trade. Foles and Keenum join Austin Davis (who has been tendered but not signed) as the three quarterbacks on the current roster, though none of the three are under contract beyond this season.

When asked about his comfort level with the quarterback position as a whole and whether the Rams had designs on adding another in the draft, Fisher gave a vote of confidence to the current group while ignoring the draft piece of the query.

"It’s a different room right now," Fisher said. "It’s a fresh start."

As we dive further into the silly season, deception and misdirection are part of the deal and it's clear there was plenty of it that went on before the swap. It's a deal that makes plenty of sense for the Rams on multiple levels.

But it should also serve as a reminder that any statements made about the team's comfort level in its quarterbacks, or just about anything else, are only as true as the amount of salt you're willing to ingest it with.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke has broken his silence -- sort of.

The Rams officially announced their big trade with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday evening in the form of a standard-issue release. Well, maybe not so standard. The release included a quote from Kroenke, the notoriously silent Rams owner who has not spoken on much of anything Rams-related since the team hired coach Jeff Fisher in 2012.

The release also includes quotes from Fisher on Bradford as well as new quarterback Nick Foles.

For posterity, here's a transcript of that release from the Rams' public relations department:


"The Rams have reached an agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles to trade QB Sam Bradford for QB Nick Foles, the team announced Tuesday. In addition, the Rams will receive Philadelphia’s fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft and a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, and St. Louis sent their fifth-round pick in 2015’s draft to the Eagles.

“Throughout his five years with the Rams, Sam has been a consummate professional,” Rams Owner E. Stanley Kroenke said. “We thank Sam for his dedication to our team and community and wish him and his family the best moving forward."

The Rams chose Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. He started 49 games over five seasons, including all 16 as a rookie, a year in which he won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 2010, Bradford set NFL rookie records for completions (354) and attempts (590), while his 3,512 yards were the second most ever by an NFL rookie at that point. In 49 starts, Bradford passed for 11,065 yards and 59 touchdowns with 38 interceptions. He ranks seventh in Rams history in passing yards and eighth in touchdown passes.

“Sam was a leader on our team in the locker room and on the field,” Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher said. “He was a great teammate who was dealt some adversity but handled it all with grace and dignity. He represented himself as well as the organization in a first-class manner. I wish him nothing but the best throughout his career."

Foles joins the Rams after three seasons in Philadelphia. He’s appeared in 28 career games and started 24, posting a 16-12 record as a starter. His best work came in 2013 when he posted a 9-4 record while throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. Foles was a third-round pick of the Eagles in 2012.

“I’m extremely excited about adding Nick to our team,” Fisher said. “Nick is a talented young quarterback and will be a great addition to our offense. I look forward to getting him here as we prepare to start our offseason program.”
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles made a trade Tuesday afternoon. You probably already heard about it as the foundation of it was a swap of quarterbacks. Sam Bradford to the Eagles in exchange for Nick Foles.

What followed was a lot of information that left a lot of people -- including yours truly -- scratching their heads on how exactly the accompanying draft pick compensation works out.

After getting some confirmation from the appropriate parties, here's the trade in all its glory (?).

Rams get: QB Nick Foles, 2015 fourth-round pick, 2016 second-round pick

Eagles get: QB Sam Bradford, 2015 fifth-round pick

None of the above picks are conditional. Those are set in stone.

Here's the conditional part:

If Bradford plays less than 50 percent of the snaps in 2015, the Eagles get a 2016 fourth-round pick from the Rams.

If Bradford does not play this season, the Eagles get a 2016 third-round pick from the Rams.

If Bradford plays more than 50 percent of the snaps in 2015, the Eagles get no additional picks.

So, for those keeping score at home, before the league announces compensatory picks at the NFL owners meetings, the Rams now have picks in the following rounds for the 2015 NFL draft: first, second, third, fourth (from Philadelphia) and seventh (from New England).
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Before the start of the 2013 season, the St. Louis Rams attempted to build their offense around quarterback Sam Bradford. They drafted receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and signed offensive tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook with the intent to spread things out and have Bradford pile up the video-game numbers he did when he won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma.

The experiment was a monumental bust and lasted all of four games before Rams coach Jeff Fisher scuttled it. Fisher and the Rams went back to a grind-it-out philosophy that brought stability to the offense, but mediocre results in the win column.

Three games later, on Oct. 20, 2013, Bradford played in what would be his final regular-season game as a member of the Rams against Carolina. He tore the ACL in his left knee and missed the rest of that season. He bounced back in time for the 2014 preseason only to suffer the same injury again. Of a possible 80 games, Bradford played in 49 in five seasons.

On Tuesday, the Rams sent Bradford to Philadelphia in exchange for quarterback Nick Foles. The Rams also received Philadelphia's 2015 fourth-round pick and 2016 second-round pick, the Eagles got the Rams' 2015 fifth-round pick. If Bradford plays less than 50 percent of the snaps in 2015, the Eagles get a 2016 fourth-round pick from the Rams. If Bradford does not play this season, the Eagles get a 2016 third-round pick from the Rams. If Bradford plays more than 50 percent of the snaps in 2015, the Eagles get no additional picks.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsNick Foles had 46 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions in 28 career games with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Foles, the Rams are getting a fresh start at the game's most important position, albeit one with limitations who has yet to prove he can consistently perform in an offense outside of what Chip Kelly does in Philadelphia.

Foles should be an upgrade over Bradford by the simple act of being healthy and cost-effective. His 2015 cap number is just shy of $1.7 million. Although Foles is coming off a clavicle injury, his medical history doesn't approach Bradford's. But really, if the Rams are to become what Fisher wants them to become, Foles should only play a minor role.

In trading Bradford, the Rams gained nearly $13 million in salary-cap savings, which puts them in the range of $28 million in available space. Time and again, Fisher has emphasized the need for his team to win with a dominant defense and a power running game.

"I don't think it's any different than anybody else," Fisher said at the scouting combine in February. "It's a run game. You need to run the football and you need to complement your play-action game to the run game and play good defense and play good special teams. You know, everybody will tell you, if you got a top-five or six defense and you can run the football, you've got a chance to be in the final four. That's the very basic theory."

It's a theory that might sound good on the surface, but is much more difficult in execution. In Seattle, that very basic theory has worked wonders, but only because the Seahawks have a truly dominant defense and a run game to match.

In three seasons with Fisher as the head coach, the Rams have averaged 106.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 19th, and an average of 4.1 yards per carry, which ranks 17th. Meanwhile, Seattle's rushing attack is first in yards per game and second in yards per carry in that span.

The pieces for a dominant defense look to be in place, but if the Rams are to become what Fisher wants, they must make haste to ensure the running game can meet that standard.

As the Rams were pulling off the Bradford-Foles swap Tuesday afternoon, the rest of the league was busy signing top free agents. After releasing center Scott Wells and tackle Jake Long and with Joe Barksdale and Davin Joseph set to hit unrestricted free agency, the Rams could need as many as three new starters on the offensive line.

However, now that the Rams have the money, many of the types of players who would seem to fit into what the Rams want are already gone. Center Rodney Hudson is headed to the Oakland Raiders, the San Diego Chargers landed guard/tackle Orlando Franklin, and guard Mike Iupati is off to Arizona. Signing high-priced offensive linemen hasn't worked out well for the Rams in the past, but if they're willing to make a bold move by ridding themselves of Bradford, this is the time to buoy those moves by pushing their chips in and trying to legitimately become what Fisher wants.

Taking it a step further, while the Rams like their young group of running backs, including Tre Mason, chasing a top back such as DeMarco Murray or even, as crazy as it sounds, Adrian Peterson, would make even more sense. Fisher's Tennessee teams enjoyed their greatest success in the prime years of Eddie George and Chris Johnson.

Fisher and his staff are entering their fourth season without so much as a winning record to show for it. Along the way, we've only seen small glimpses of the Rams becoming what he has envisioned since he arrived in 2012.

For better or worse, trading Bradford gives the Rams the money and opportunity to help realize that vision. It's incumbent on Fisher and his group to see it through before it's too late and, like Bradford, they too are on their way out the door.
The Philadelphia Eagles' signing of Mark Sanchez to a two-year deal Sunday night will fuel the intrigue of Chip Kelly possibly making a serious run at Marcus Mariota in the NFL draft.

Could the Cleveland Browns help him do just that, while getting a quarterback (and possibly more) in return? I know that question has been asked in more than one NFL circle in this context:

Eagles give up the No. 20 pick plus Nick Foles for the right to move to Cleveland's No. 12.

Deals are typically more complex than that -- Philly could sweeten the deal with a mid-round pick -- but it's a point of reference.

Browns get more quarterback help while keeping two first-rounders, picks 19 and 20. The Eagles get eight spots closer to Mariota, using No. 12 overall and future first-rounders to snag Mariota. NJ.com reported the Eagles quietly shopped Foles at the Senior Bowl, with the Rams, Titans and Texans showing interest.

Josh McCown very well could be the starter in 2015, but I'm told the quarterback room in Berea is not complete. A draft-week move could be coming, either via trade or by using a mid-round pick on one.

The question: Would Foles be worth the decision to move back eight spots in the first round? Some would debate no. Foles' numbers -- 14-4 as a starter, 40 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, a 100.5 passer rating -- say yes. Depends how the Browns' personnel folks feel about Foles' game.

Hard to imagine a quarterback better suited for Kelly's offense than Mariota. If the cost of getting him is too steep, the Eagles likely will commit to Foles and Sanchez as the 1-2 combo for 2015.

The McCown signing gives the Browns breathing room in free agency. They don't have to dip into a weak quarterback pool if they don't want, instead adding depth to key positions and allow a free-roam approach to the draft aiming for the best available players.
video Our weekly look at clues that might reveal whether the Buccaneers are leaning toward selecting Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota -- or neither -- with the No. 1 pick in the draft:

The rumors started to really fly on Friday. All along, there’s been speculation that the Philadelphia Eagles might try to trade up for the No. 1 pick in the draft to use it on Oregon's Mariota. It all is logical. Mariota played for Eagles coach Chip Kelly in college and would be a perfect fit in Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense. It was pure speculation, I thought.

Until my phone started ringing Friday. Two different members of the Philadelphia media called me to say they were hearing rumblings that a trade was imminent. These are trusted media members and the content of both calls contained the same details.

The Eagles were about to trade quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy and three first-round draft picks to the Bucs for the No. 1 pick in the draft. It sounded believable.

So I called someone within the Tampa Bay organization that would know if something was cooking. He said the rumor was untrue. Meantime, my friends in the Philadelphia media poked around some more with their Eagles’ sources. They got the same response I did. No trade was imminent and no one would say if there even have been any talks between the two teams.

Scrap that rumor -- for now. If something is going to happen, it probably won’t come until much closer to the draft. Deadlines push people to action and the draft isn’t until the end of April. The rumors are likely to continue to circulate.

But for every reason why such a deal would make sense, there are an equal number of reasons why I don’t see it happening.

Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s side of things. Would the Bucs really part with the No. 1 pick instead of using it on Mariota or Florida State’s Winston? I think that might be a stretch. Winston and Mariota might be franchise quarterbacks. The Bucs would be giving up a franchise quarterback and plugging in Foles as the starting quarterback.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Bucs had something close to Foles in Josh McCown and they let him go. They still have something close to Foles in Mike Glennon.

Then there’s McCoy. He’s a great running back. But the Bucs already have Charles Sims and Doug Martin. All indications are the coaching staff and front office are deeply invested in Sims, who they drafted last year. I don’t see the Bucs suddenly giving up on Sims. Plus, I'm not so sure the Bucs want to take on McCoy's big contract.

The three first-round picks would have to be attractive for the Bucs. They have plenty of holes besides quarterback. But this is where the potential deal hits a major roadblock.

With that in mind, let’s flip over to Philadelphia’s point of view. No matter how smitten Kelly is with Mariota, the Eagles might not have the firepower to make such a trade. At the moment, the Eagles have the 20th overall pick in the draft. That’s all they have.

They would have to make another trade first to get another first-round pick for this year. Yes, Philadelphia could offer its first-round picks in 2016 and ’17. But the Bucs can’t sit around and wait for those drafts. Coach Lovie Smith needs to win now.

Besides, giving up three first-round picks, would mean the Eagles would be mortgaging their future on Mariota. Three picks and two players would be a very steep price.

I’m not saying such a deal can’t happen. But let’s file that trade away for the moment and wait for something that’s stronger than a rumor.

Eagles vs. Giants preview

December, 26, 2014
12/26/14
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The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played a game without playoff implications, it was the tail end of the 2012 season and Andy Reid was still their coach. For the New York Giants, Sunday's 1 p.m. ET regular-season finale against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium will be the fifth consecutive game in which both they and their opponent have already been eliminated from postseason contention. Nothing on the line here but pride for these division rivals. ESPN NFL Nation reporters Dan Graziano and Phil Sheridan are here to break it all down for you.

Graziano: Well, that fell apart in a hurry. Three weeks ago, the Eagles were in the NFC East driver’s seat. Now, Sunday’s game means nothing more to their playoff chances than it does to the Giants’ playoff chances. What’s the biggest reason for the collapse?

Sheridan: I’ve had a little time to ponder this and I think it’s relatively simple. The Eagles were not an elite team this year. They were pretty good, able to compete within the NFC East and against St. Louis and Jacksonville and such squads. But every time they had to face a playoff-caliber team -- Arizona, San Francisco (before their fall), Green Bay -- they lost.

That big Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas created the illusion that the Eagles had hit their stride. But Seattle brought them right back to reality. Seattle simply beat them up the way superior teams beat average teams.

The two most recent losses, to Dallas and Washington, were due to factors that have lingered all season for the Eagles. Turnovers? They lead the league in giving the ball away. Red zone? Break out the rookie place-kicker. Pass defense? Er, next question.

Early in the season, the Eagles got a bunch of touchdowns from their defense and special teams. That was a tough way to win, and it dried up on them against the better teams.

The Giants were 3-9 when the Eagles were 9-3. The Eagles haven’t won since, the Giants haven't lost since. Is that just late-season, no-pressure-to-win stat-padding, or have the Giants really turned things around? Put another way: Is this something they can carry over to 2015?

Graziano: They think it is, which I think is important, considering how young the players are who are contributing to this run. The schedule has helped, of course. The Giants' three-game winning streak is against Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis. But the Rams were playing defense as well as anyone in the league coming into Sunday, and the Giants dropped 37 points on them. So something is going right. Rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham is the superstar, but rookie Andre Williams has two 100-yard rushing games in the past three weeks, rookies Devon Kennard and Kerry Wynn are contributing on special teams. Add in strong late surges from cornerstone players in quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and the Giants are on the kind of roll that means nothing to this year but could, they hope, give them some confidence going into the offseason that they're on the right track for 2015. The offense has definitely shown progress since Week 1, and in the first year with a new coordinator, that's one of the biggest things for which the Giants were hoping.

Hey, Mark Sanchez is back in his old stomping grounds this week. Am I safe in assuming the Eagles go into this offseason with quarterback high on their priority list? Or do they expect/want Nick Foles to come back and win the job?

Sheridan: You’d be safe in that assumption if I were the general manager or head coach. As for Howie Roseman and Chip Kelly, I’m not sure how they view this. I think it will be a little bit of a Rorschach test: What they see when they look at Foles will tell a lot about them.

If they blame the collapse on Mark Sanchez and his 13 turnovers in eight games, that will mean they choose to overlook Foles’ 13 turnovers in his eight games. It’s a shame, really, that Foles wasn’t cleared to play in time to get one or two more games in. It would have helped the evaluation process to see him behind the relatively healthy version of the offensive line. It was banged up when he was playing (which is one reason he ended up with a broken collarbone, frankly).

Sanchez will be a free agent. Foles still has one more year on his rookie deal. It would certainly be easy enough to bring Foles back and let 2015 decide whether he gets a franchise-quarterback contract. But then Kelly is in his third season and if Foles plays more like he did this year than last year? Year 4 isn’t exactly the time to start looking for a franchise quarterback.

I would expect Kelly and Roseman to explore all the options, including mortgaging some draft picks to move up and try for Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. If they can’t hit a home run, they can always come back with Foles. But swinging for the fences seems like the right thing at this point.

How responsible is Beckham for the Giants’ recent success? It looks from a distance as if he quickly has become the bell cow for that team. Does it look like that from up close? How good can the kid be?

Graziano: He's the engine, that's for sure. I thought the target distribution was more even this week, then I looked at the box score and saw Beckham was targeted 12 times and no one else was targeted more than six. And this in Manning's best game of the year. It's not exaggerating to say there's no one in the league playing the receiver position better than Beckham is playing it at the moment. He runs great routes, has great speed, catches everything and offers the ability to run trick plays where he lines up in the backfield because he can run with the ball or even throw it. He had only two catches for 28 yards in the Week 6 whitewashing in Philadelphia in which Victor Cruz went down. But since that game, Beckham has 1,048 yards and 10 touchdowns in only nine games. He can be as good as he wants to be. Remember, he's doing this after missing almost all of the offseason program, all of training camp and the first four games of the season due to a hamstring injury. In the grand scheme of things, at the NFL level, he has barely even practiced.

As far as this game goes, Beckham and the Giants’ offense are on a roll. Do you expect them to be able to continue it against an Eagles defense that shut them out in Week 6?

Sheridan: Yup.

Oh, I should write more? I just don’t see anything from the Eagles' defense that suggests they’re equipped to stop the bleeding that has cost them these past three games. There is some chance that Bradley Fletcher will get benched after his escapades covering Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson, but there is a reason the Eagles kept running Fletcher out there. He’s better than Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin.

That said, can he cover Beckham? I shudder to think about the damage that might be done if the Eagles try to find out. The simple fact is the Eagles have tended to lose against good quarterbacks with decent weapons to work with. You know better than I do what was up with Manning and the Giants when the Eagles shut them out in October. Cruz got hurt in that game. Beckham was only a household name with “David” in front of it back then. But if the Giants of the past few weeks show up Sunday, they will be able to get some big plays on this defense.

There always seems to be speculation about Tom Coughlin’s future. He endured a seven-game losing streak this season. Now that things seem turned around, is there more confidence in Coughlin going forward? Is he feeling re-energized?

Graziano: I never sensed a lapse in energy -- not for any sustained length of time. Coughlin was down after the loss in Jacksonville that dropped the Giants to 3-9, but true to his nature he was right back up Wednesday and getting the team ready for the next game the way he always does. At this point, I think it would be shocking if he's not back next year, based on everything I've heard inside and outside the building about this. Ownership never wanted to get rid of him -- especially after only one year in the new offense and with Ben McAdoo still only 37 and likely not ready yet to take over. There was some concern that a lousy finish might force their hand, but the three straight wins here have mellowed things, and now I expect Coughlin back in 2015. And I don't expect to see any difference in the way he coaches or operates. He's as consistently a high-energy coach as there is in the league, even though he's the oldest, and if there was no reason to get rid of him last year, I don't see what the reason is to do it a year later.

The new normal for the Packers' defense

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
11:20
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You have seen this before from Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy.

It's nothing new -- these 341-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception games from the Green Bay Packers quarterback, and the 129-yard and 109-yard receiving games from Cobb and Nelson, respectively, and tackle-breaking touchdown runs by Lacy. Breaking records and reaching milestones has become the norm for Rodgers and his crew of playmakers.

But what you saw from the Packers' defense in Sunday's 53-20 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field might be the new normal. Since their meltdown in the 44-23 loss at New Orleans before the bye, defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit has turned in a pair of dominant performances in blowout home victories over the Eagles and Chicago Bears.

It has coincided with the new, hybrid role for outside linebacker/inside linebacker Clay Matthews, an idea that was launched during the bye, but it's about much more than that.

"It just shows that we have a very talented defense," said Matthews, who registered a sack for the second straight game. "And it's all about deciding which defense wants to show up."

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThe Packers' Julius Peppers gets away from Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews for a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown.
If it's the one that foiled Jay Cutler last week and Mark Sanchez on Sunday, then the Packers (7-3) might have the kind of complete team capable of a long playoff run.

Sacks by defensive tackle Letroy Guion on the Eagles' opening series and outside linebacker Mike Neal on the second series set a tone of aggressiveness from the start. Guion beat right guard Matt Tobin on a second-and-6 and dumped Sanchez for a 7-yard loss, which set up a much easier third-and-long situation for the defense and ultimately led to a punt. Neal then dumped Sanchez for a 9-yard loss on third-and-6 to force another punt.

By the time the Eagles got the ball back the next time, they were down 17-0.

"Defensively, you're just seeing a unit that's playing faster," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "The personnel groups that we're getting in and out of, I think it's happening seamlessly. You're getting used to playing together in combinations that we kind of set for the second half. With that, our playmakers are making plays, and we've got a lot of playmakers on defense."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced, high-powered offense looked no different than the Bears offense in their futile performance a week earlier. For the second straight week, the game was over by halftime. This time, the Packers led 30-6 at the break, and even though they gave up 429 yards, it was empty yardage in the end.

"Against an offense like that, to do what they did tonight, that was very impressive," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "They're the reason ... yeah, we scored points in the first half, but they kept it to six points. That was huge."

What followed the early sacks was this: a pair of fumble recoveries, one by Nick Perry and another by Casey Hayward, who returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. Then two interceptions, one by Tramon Williams and another by Julius Peppers, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

This against a team that, though it was missing starting quarterback Nick Foles, brought the NFL's fifth ranked offense to town.

The Packers' run defense that was so awful the first half of the season -- it ranked dead last and gave up 155 yards per game -- all of a sudden is more than respectable. They have nearly cut that number in half the past two games and allowed an average of just 82 yards rushing per game.

"We’ve been going out saying that we’re going to get off of the field," Williams said. "[The] offense has been moving the ball unbelievable, and if we can continue doing that throughout the year, then we're going to be where we want to be."
Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith penalized for offensive pass interference, overturning a go-ahead touchdown with 32 seconds remaining
Referee: Clete Blakeman
Analysis: Blakeman's crew entered Week 8 calling the NFL's fewest penalties per game (12, declined and accepted). It had called only one offensive pass inference penalty this season, but there was no hesitation Sunday in making a decision that wiped out a game-changing play.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Ravens' Steve Smith eludes Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson after catching a pass from Joe Flacco in the final minute on Sunday. Smith was penalized for pushing Bengals safety George Iloka during the play, negating the potential winning touchdown.
OPI is among the NFL's 2014 points of emphasis, but the league's new vigilance instructions -- focused on pushing off at the top of the route and downfield blocking before the pass -- don't apply in this case. Smith and Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka were coming back toward a long Joe Flacco pass when the contact occurred.

Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(g) prevents either an offensive or defensive player from "initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass" when the ball is in the air.

The replay reveals that Smith -- a 14-year veteran who knows all the tricks -- grabbed Iloka's jersey at the chest with his left hand. With his right arm, Smith pushed away Iloka's left arm. The contact wasn't violent, but Iloka fell to the ground before Smith caught the pass and dashed into the end zone.

Some might believe Iloka would have fallen anyway, with no contact, given his body position. Others have suggested that Iloka flopped or otherwise exaggerated the contact. Neither seems a credible explanation.

We'll never know if Iloka would have fallen, and it doesn't mitigate the fact that Smith initiated contact. Blakeman's crew is the NFL's most conservative and probably not susceptible to a flop. Flopping rather than tackling Smith in that situation wouldn't make much sense for Iloka, knowing the relative unlikelihood that Blakeman would call OPI.

The "controversy" is that you don't often see officiating crews insert themselves into game-deciding plays. The tendencies of Blakeman's crew suggest it is especially likely to "let them play." Smith was no doubt counting on that trend continuing, but based on the wording of the NFL rule, he committed OPI. It was a brutal turn of events for the Ravens and their fans, but the call was more than defensible.

Play: Detroit Lions are called for delay of game, giving them a second chance to kick a game-winning field goal
Referee: Pete Morelli
Analysis: Sunday's game in London demonstrated that even delay of game penalties -- called when the play clock hits :00 before the snap -- aren't nearly as straightforward as they seem.

On several occasions earlier in the game, the Lions appeared to snap the ball after the clock's expiration but were not called for a delay. On place-kicker Matt Prater's errant 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining, however, they were.

Two important mitigating factors in our understanding of this penalty surfaced.

First, the clock we see on television graphics is not official and might be out of sync with the actual stadium clock. Second, standard officiating mechanics call for the back judge to watch the play clock and -- only after it expires -- look to see if the ball has been snapped. In theory, this mechanic gives the offense a bit more time and prevents the kind of bang-bang call we saw Sunday.

Technically, Prater's misfire never occurred because the penalty wiped out the play. If there were no penalty, the Atlanta Falcons would have won. The Lions had no timeouts remaining, but there was no 10-second runoff because the clock hadn't been running. (Quarterback Matthew Stafford had spiked the ball on the previous play.) The delay pushed the Lions back five yards, and Prater drilled the ensuing 48-yard game winner.

The question is whether back judge Dale Shaw was too aggressive in seeing a delay. Prior to this game, Morelli's crew had called three delay of game penalties in 2014, about midway through the range of this call among the NFL's 17 crews. (The high was eight, and the low was one.)

Though that is a relatively small sample, it's enough to believe Morelli and Shaw are not particularly flag-happy on this mechanic. We can't see the official game clock in the replay, so in this case we have to trust that Shaw followed mechanics and saw what he called.

Play: Roughing the passer on Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: In the second quarter, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles scrambled out of the pocket toward his right. A yard before reaching the sideline, he threw a 25-yard completion to receiver Riley Cooper to convert a third down. Anderson then penalized Mathieu 15 yards for a late hit on Foles.

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(a) provides guidelines for this penalty. It requires a call if "a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had left the passer's hands before contact was made." It adds: "Once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make contact with the passer only up through the rusher's first step after such release (prior to the second step hitting the ground); thereafter the rusher must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to 'drive through' or otherwise forcibly contact the passer."

Finally, the rule states that "incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up ... will not be considered significant."

When you examine the replay in slow motion, you see that Mathieu completed a step toward Foles either simultaneously with the release of the ball or close to it. At the conclusion of his next step, Mathieu began shifting to an upright posture as if he were slowing down. His right arm/shoulder made modest contact with Foles' chest, sending the quarterback to the ground. Anderson, who was standing behind Foles and thus had an obstructed view at best of Mathieu's steps, immediately threw his flag.

By now, we all understand the NFL's desire to protect quarterbacks from injury. This play, however, stretches the deepest boundaries of their codified attempts. An argument could be made that Mathieu took his one legal step before contact, that he eased up before the collision and that the hit was not significant. It's true that Foles landed on his back, but that was largely because he left his feet to make the throw and hadn't regained full balance upon landing.

In Anderson's defense, this analysis required a slow-motion view of the play that he never saw. The penalty is not reviewable. Finally, Mathieu did extend his arm slightly, an argument against "incidental" contact.

Anderson entered Week 8 with four roughing the passer penalties, tied for third-most in the NFL. That's an active pace. In the end, his call stretched the definition and intent of this rule.
PHILADELPHIA -- The New York Giants lost more than a game here Sunday night. They lost wide receiver Victor Cruz for the season to a knee injury -- a loss that hit them on a deeper emotional level than did the 27-0 loss on the scoreboard. They also lost ground in the NFC East. Rather than playing for first place next week in Dallas, they sit at 3-3, a full two games behind the two teams tied for first place in their division.

It was a terrible night on every conceivable level for the Giants -- a rude splash of cold water in the face of a team that was beginning to feel as though it had things figured out.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Rich Schultz /Getty ImagesEli Manning and the Giants couldn't get going against the Eagles and fell to 3-3.
"I think it's a good reminder that you can't just show up on the field and have things go well for you automatically," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "You've got to earn it."

The Giants aren't as bad as they looked Sunday night. Nor are they as good as they looked during the three-game winning streak they carried here with them on a wave of bizarre midweek trash talk. They are what we thought they were all along -- a rebuilding team that's going to show progress in spurts but isn't likely to sustain excellence anytime soon. They're a team unlikely to be able to survive injuries to players as important to them as Cruz and injured running back Rashad Jennings, who missed this game with a knee injury of his own. They're good enough and well-coached enough that it's not going to shock you to see them win any given game, yet they're unfinished enough that they can still get their helmets handed to them by a 2013 playoff team that has as many good players as the Eagles do.

"Definitely, the first couple of series, we got punched in the mouth," Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "We started bleeding, and we couldn't put a Band-Aid on it."

The Eagles dominated the Giants on both lines. They sacked Manning six times and backup Ryan Nassib twice in what Giants right tackle Justin Pugh called "probably the worst game I've ever played, hands down, not even close." The Eagles' offensive line kept the Giants' pass-rushers away from quarterback Nick Foles and opened enough holes to break star running back LeSean McCoy out of his early-season funk. The Eagles were, by the Giants' own admission, the more physical team and the team that wanted the game more.

"We took the night off," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "No rhyme or reason for it."

That's going to be the frustrating thing about this Giants season. You're not likely to know when the good game is coming or when the stinker is just around the corner. They will be inconsistent and maddening, because that is the type of team they are. They are still putting a lot of new pieces together, still trying to make progress in the new offense. If you believed that progress would continue without any setbacks, you now know how wrong you were.

The injury to Cruz only adds to the challenge. Jennings was clearly missed, as the Giants don't trust rookie Andre Williams in passing situations yet and the Eagles played defense as though they knew it. And starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who missed the second half with back spasms, is starting to become a regular injury question mark.

A team in the Giants' position -- one that's still trying to find itself -- is going to feel those injuries keenly. Cruz, Jennings and Rodgers-Cromartie are vital pieces not easily replaced. And even if the Giants get tough relief efforts from guys such as Odell Beckham Jr., Williams and Zack Bowman, there are enough cracks elsewhere on the roster that the hiccups are likely to continue.

There's nothing wrong with being a team like that as long as you're making progress. And Sunday night notwithstanding, the Giants have shown progress over the season's first six weeks. If you can contend while you're rebuilding, it's a bonus. And while these Giants may yet be able to pull that off, their main goals this year should be to show progress and figure out which holes remain for them to plug next offseason. Nothing about the first six weeks of the season has really changed that. Sunday night, in the end, was only a reminder that this is a team that still has a long way to go.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Now we know where Aaron Rodgers' insistence on avoiding interceptions began.

"I think it comes from playing for Chico Jaguars back in the eighth grade for coach Curtis Holder and throwing way too many interceptions," the Green Bay Packers quarterback said Tuesday on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show.

Rodgers
As noted earlier, Rodgers set the mark for the fewest interceptions by an NFL quarterback to reach 200 touchdowns.

"Ours or nobody's has always been our philosophy," Rodgers said.

Rodgers said ever since his freshman year of high school in Chico, California, he has made it a goal to throw fewer than 10 interceptions per season.

"I've only thrown over 10 interceptions, I think my junior year of high school because of a poor last playoff game and two years in the pros where I threw 11 [in 2010] and 13 [in 2008]," Rodgers said. "Other than that, I've always tried to keep my interceptions low."

In college, Rodgers threw 43 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions in two seasons at Cal. If you count his one year at Butte College, he had 71 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions as a collegian.

Through five games this season, Rodgers has 12 touchdowns and only one interception. That lone pick came in the opener on a pass that was slightly off the mark and was tipped by receiver Jordy Nelson.

Rodgers' best touchdown-to-interception mark came in his MVP season of 2011, when he threw 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 15 regular-season games. He said he admired the performances of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles last season and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in 2010.

"To only throw six in '11 was great," Rodgers said. "But last year Nick Foles throwing 27 touchdowns and two interceptions I think is fantastic, and Brady a couple of years ago threw, I think, 36 and four interceptions. To take care of the football like that is phenomenal. That's kind of the goal every year is to limit those, but some of them happen."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin shows his team the NFC East standings every week. He's not going to have a tough time getting his players' attention with them this week.

Winners of three games in a row, the Giants are nonetheless in third place in their division with a 3-2 record. The two teams in front of them are the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, both 4-1.

The Giants' next two games are on the road, the next two Sundays, in Philadelphia and then in Dallas.

"We know what's in front of us, but we need to keep focused on ourselves," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We have a lot more work to do and we can get a lot better. If we do that, it doesn't matter who we play."

That's a perfectly appropriate frame of mind for the players to have. But the fact is, if the Giants win their next two games, they would enter their Week 8 bye in control of the division. They would be 5-2, with the Eagles' and Cowboys' records guaranteed to be no better than that, and they would be 3-0 in their division games, all three of which will have been road games.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt RourkeLeSean McCoy is off to a slow start for the Eagles, but is coming off an 81-yard performance in Week 5.
If they lose their next two games, the Giants would be 3-4, with the Eagles and Cowboys each no worse than 5-2, and they'd be 1-2 in the division. They could also split the next two games, but if they do that, they'll obviously slip somewhat significantly behind whichever team beats them.

It's a critical stretch, and the Giants are in the right frame of mind to handle it. They followed a couple of easy victories with Sunday's tough, brawling comeback, and they believe their new system and personnel are working well together. So what are their chances to make the most of this opportunity?

The Eagles are first up. They're 4-1 and their only loss was in San Francisco, but things aren't going smoothly. Six of their 18 touchdowns have come on defense or special teams. Quarterback Nick Foles, who threw just two interceptions last year, has five interceptions and three lost fumbles in five games this year. They are allowing an average of 26.4 points per game. They fell behind in each of their first four games and came close to blowing a 34-7 third-quarter lead to St. Louis on Sunday. Last year's NFL rushing leader, LeSean McCoy, is averaging 54.6 yards per game, 2.9 yards per carry and has only one touchdown. They have suffered multiple injuries to starting offensive linemen, a problem they avoided throughout the 2013 season. As a result, their offense is not what it was as they rolled to a division title in the second half of 2013.

The Giants' newfound ability to milk the clock and operate their offense in rhythm while minimizing turnover risk could enable them to control the game against a still-wobbly defending champion. But McCoy did run for 81 yards and the team for 145 on Sunday, with right tackle Lane Johnson back from his drug suspension. And Foles' play-action passing game improved as a result (9-for-12 with an average of 9.3 yards per attempt). The Eagles remain dangerous with Darren Sproles complementing McCoy out of the backfield and Jeremy Maclin leading the downfield attack. They will be a tougher offense to get off the field on third down than any the Giants have faced since their opener in Detroit.

The Cowboys are dominating in the run game behind NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and a powerful offensive line that features three of their last four first-round draft picks. They have won four games in a row, though by the time the Giants get there, Dallas will be coming off a tough road game in Seattle. Obviously, if the Cowboys can run the ball against the defending Super Bowl champs and take a five-game winning streak into the Giants game, they will have everyone's attention. But so far, their formula has been effective. Murray was so effective on first down Sunday that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was 15-for-20 for 185 yards on second-down throws.

Dallas' defense entered Week 5 ranked 26th against the pass and 14th against the run, but it hasn't been the crippling weakness it looked to be on paper before the season started. Part of the reason for that is substandard competition, but one of their four victories was an impressive throttling of Drew Brees and the Saints. The Cowboys' offense is so good at keeping the opposing offense on the sidelines that the defense isn't asked to do too much.

These will both be difficult games, and after they're over, the Giants will hit the bye week with a much better idea of how they stack up in the NFC East race.

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