Philadelphia Eagles: Kyle Orton

PHILADELPHIA -- It was always coming down to the season finale in Dallas. No matter what the Eagles or Cowboys did over the last two months, they were always on a collision course that would decide the NFC East title in Week 17.

And yes, it was more than a little anticlimactic when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s back injury knocked him out of the game.

The Eagles still had to win, though. And they did, in a game that featured a number of unforgettable and season-defining plays. Choosing just one was the hardest part of doing this entire season. But here we go:

Dec. 29 at Dallas: Cornerback Cary Williams breaks up a two-point conversion pass intended for Dez Bryant.

The Eagles defense made a couple of other big plays. Connor Barwin batting away a pass on fourth down was a huge moment. And of course Brandon Boykin made an interception that ended the Cowboys’ last chance to drive for the game-winning score. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

But the momentum belonged to the Cowboys when, on a fourth-and-9 play, Kyle Orton found Bryant for a 32-yard touchdown right through the heart of the Eagles’ secondary. That made the score 24-22 with only 2 minutes, 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys lined up for the two-point conversion and a chance to tie the game.

Maybe the Eagles would have driven to a game-winning field goal or touchdown if the Cowboys had tied the game there. Maybe they would have won in overtime. But maybe not. For certain, that two-point lead put all the pressure on the Cowboys in those final minutes.

A week earlier, the Eagles had beaten the Chicago Bears, 54-11. The Bears scored just one touchdown in that game. It was a 6-yard throw from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall. Williams was the cornerback beaten on the play.

As he lined up across from Bryant, Williams thought of that play. He knew the Cowboys coaches had studied that game tape. He said he expected Dallas to try to get the ball to Bryant the same way Chicago had gotten it to Marshall. He guessed right, diving to slap the ball away and preserve the lead.

The Cowboys got another chance, but Boykin ended that with his interception. The Eagles celebrated the NFC East title on the Cowboys’ home field. It was the highlight of an exciting first season under coach Chip Kelly. And the defining play was Williams’ desperate swat at a pass that would have tied the game.

On Friday, we’ll take a look at the last of the 10 plays that defined the Eagles’ 2013 season.
PHILADELPHIA -- It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, considering Drew Brees is one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

“He kind of reminds me of Kyle Orton, but he’s a little shorter,” Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole said.

For context, it must be remembered that Cole and the Eagles had played against Orton and the Dallas Cowboys just a few days earlier. They couldn’t sack him because of his quick release. Orton threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns on 30-for-46 passing.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDisrupting Drew Brees' timing and preventing him from establishing a rhythm will be a key for the Eagles' defense.
So Cole wasn’t slighting Brees in any way, simply talking about the challenge of getting to a quick-throwing quarterback.

“He’s a rhythm quarterback and he gets the ball out,” Cole said. “The scouting report says they’ve taken more sacks than usual this year. It’s more us going out there and executing and being mistake-free. I think we can win this game.”

The scouting report is correct. Brees was sacked 37 times during the 2013 season, 11 more sacks than he took in any other season with the Saints. Brees was sacked 21 times in eight road games and 16 times at home.

That said, the pass rush can be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks.

“You would love to get the sack,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “But you don’t know how the game is going to go. We need to get pressure on him, that’s for sure. We can’t let him sit back there and play 7-on-7, because that’s what he wants to do.”

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that, despite the lack of sacks in Dallas, he thought the “pass rush has been pretty solid and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting. It's not always sacks. I think we have our share of them and we are getting there. Looking at the tape from the other night, the ball coming out that quick, they say, 'Boy, the pass rush just wasn't on.' It's a different time set. It's a different time frame. It's much harder to get to those guys that the ball is out right away.

“And sometimes, if he had held on one more count, we would have had him, and that's why they get rid of it so quick.”

The other half of the equation is coverage. The Saints will have five players running routes much of the time. Brees is terrific at quickly going through his series of options and making a quick decision. That makes disrupting timing and knocking receivers off their routes even more important than simply running with them in coverage. If that first and second read are not precisely where they should be, even Brees has to wait an extra second or two for someone to get open.

“We talked about it as a line,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “Keep pressure in his face and try to make him scramble out of the pocket.”

It might also be a good idea to keep their arms up. Cox, Barwin and Cedric Thornton are 6-foot-4. Defensive end Clifton Geathers is 6-8. Brees is generously listed at 6-foot -- which is to say, shorter than Kyle Orton.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

PHILADELPHIA -- Fittingly for the team that won the NFC East title, the Eagles were well represented on ESPN.com’s all-division team. Of the 26 spots, 11 went to Eagles -- including more than half the All-NFC East offense.

Nick Foles edged out Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Foles went 8-2 as a starter, threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and led the NFL with a passer rating of 119.2.

NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson also made the all-division team. So did three-fifths of the Eagles’ starting offensive line: left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce.

Only McCoy and Peters were named to the Pro Bowl.

Four Eagles defenders made the all-division squad: linebackers Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans, defensive end Fletcher Cox and cornerback Brandon Boykin. Boykin is unusual in that he isn’t a starter. As the Eagles’ nickel corner, he plays only about half the defensive plays. But he had six interceptions, tied for second most in the NFL. Two of them, including the one off Kyle Orton Sunday night in Dallas, ended opponents’ comeback threats.

Punter Donnie Jones was tops in the division in net average, but his real impact was in having 35 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Defense saves game for Kelly, Foles

December, 30, 2013
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Chip KellyMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Boykin's interception sealed a playoff berth for Chip Kelly and the Eagles.

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."

 

Rapid Reaction: Philadelphia Eagles

December, 29, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Quick thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 24-22 victory against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night.

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.
PHILADELPHIA -- Tony Romo is officially out and the dynamics of the Philadelphia Eagles' showdown with the Dallas Cowboys are officially very different.

Foles
The pressure on Romo -- to win in Week 17, to avoid a fourth-quarter interception, to save coach Jason Garrett’s job -- does not shift to his backup, Kyle Orton.

It shifts to Nick Foles. Not all of it, of course. Foles doesn’t have Chip Kelly’s job security on his shoulders, and there isn’t an ongoing national debate about whether he rises or shrinks in clutch moments.

But Foles is now the clearly superior quarterback in a must-win game, and that comes with pressure to deliver.

“It’s very important to be a good quarterback on a big stage,” Foles said. “Obviously, this game is a little bit bigger because we want to keep playing. In these games, you really have to execute. You have to block out all the other distractions and other feelings.”

If Romo led the Cowboys to a victory and the NFC East title, that would be viewed as another step in Foles' learning process. Getting outdueled by Orton would be a little tougher for Eagles fans to digest.

“Tony Romo is a great player,” Foles said. “He’s a great quarterback. You never want to see anybody injured. I hope he has a speedy recovery and he heals. But I’m playing against that team. Tony doesn’t play defense and I don’t play defense. I don't really worry about that. I just know this is what it is and I’m going to be ready for it.”

Romo has played 16 career games against the Eagles, including a playoff game after the 2010 season. All but one of those were against Andy Reid-coached teams and their 4-3 defensive scheme.

In October, against Bill Davis’ 3-4 defense, Romo played well enough to win, but he was far from great. The Cowboys scored just three points in the first half. In the second half, Romo directed a third-quarter touchdown drive. After Foles went down with a concussion, the Cowboys spent the fourth quarter intercepting Matt Barkley and giving Romo the ball back.

Romo's final numbers: 28 for 47, 317 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. So you can see why Eagles defenders weren’t high-fiving in the meeting rooms when they heard Romo was injured. This is a group that just held Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears to 11 points.

It’s also a group that allowed 48 points the week before to Matt Cassel and the Minnesota Vikings. So the sense is that the Eagles’ performance, rather than the identity of the opponent, will go a long way toward determining the outcome Sunday night.

“I don’t know who that team was (in Minnesota),” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “That wasn’t us. There can’t be any letdown. Our playoffs start this week. There’s no overlooking anybody.”

Other than Minnesota, the Eagles have held 10 of 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points. That includes Romo and the Cowboys in Week 7. If they can do that Sunday night, it should be enough to win.

If Foles delivers, that is.

RBs as vital as QBs for Eagles-Cowboys

December, 27, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA – The quarterbacks are driving the pregame narrative, but come Sunday night, everyone could be talking about the Eagles and Cowboys running backs.

Nick Foles has had to answer one million questions about what happened to him when the Eagles lost 17-3 to Dallas in October. And that’s because Foles played his worst game that day and left with a concussion. But the Cowboys also shut down LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
Elsa/Getty ImagesNot be overlooked, the performance of Eagles running back LeSean McCoy will be crucial in Sunday's contest versus the Cowboys.
And while the airwaves crackle with Tony Romo updates, DeMarco Murray’s availability for this game could have an enormous impact. Romo played in that October game. Murray did not, and the Cowboys had just 74 rushing yards.

“They’re not going to change their offense if it has to be Kyle Orton,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “They are who they’ve shown to be on tape. They’ll have their running back back, so I’m sure they’ll try to run the ball more.”

Last week’s game against the Chicago Bears illustrates how the Eagles defensive approach can be most effective. The Eagles held running back Matt Forte to 29 yards. They stuffed the run early and, after their offense built a 21-0 lead, were able to focus on pressuring the quarterback.

Whether it’s Orton or a physically limited Romo, the pass rushers won’t have to be concerned with the quarterback running the ball.

The Eagles’ running game is a more complicated issue. It went awry for three of four games in October. The Giants and Cowboys did some things along the defensive front to disrupt the Eagles’ blocking scheme. But McCoy was also making decisions that took him away from open space and into crowds.

“It was both, for sure,” center Jason Kelce said. “But I think that (the disconnect between McCoy and the line) was a huge part of it. Shady sees things the way we’re seeing things. We’ve just gotten better and better the more reps we’ve taken.”

The Eagles’ scheme is based on getting a blocker on each member of the defensive front and then let McCoy handle a single defender one-on-one. Against Dallas that day, the single defender was often linebacker Sean Lee, and Lee won those one-on-one matchups. He tackled McCoy five times, once for a loss. Lee had 11 tackles overall -- no other Cowboy had more than five -- plus an interception.

Lee is injured and unlikely to play Sunday. It would be overstating things to suggest that’s a bigger loss than Romo, but not by much. Not in this game.

“He’s one of the best ‘backers in the league,” Kelce said. “He makes a difference.”

“It’s a big loss,” Barwin said. “That’s a big challenge for them. If we lost DeMeco (Ryans), that would be a huge challenge for us. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. But he’s respected around this league as a hell of a player.”

“He’s obviously one of the top linebackers in the game,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “Nine games, he's got 99 tackles and four interceptions, and seeing him up close and personal when we played them in October, he was all over the field.”

The Cowboys defense is vulnerable against the pass, to say the least. McCoy won’t be required to carry the offense. But keeping the offense in balance will help take pressure off Foles and, if the Eagles are able to get the lead, run down the clock on the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.

Double Coverage: Eagles-Cowboys

December, 27, 2013
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Kyle Orton and Nick FolesAP Photo, Getty ImagesDallas QB Kyle Orton, left, and the Eagles' Nick Foles didn't open the season as starters, but are expected to be leading their teams Sunday night with the NFC East title and a playoff berth at stake.
IRVING, Texas -- The NFC East title is at stake Sunday at AT&T Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys have been in this spot for the past three seasons, but for the first time the are likely to be without quarterback Tony Romo, who sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen is not expected to play. The Eagles were not expected to be in this situation in Chip Kelly’s first season.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Todd Archer and Phil Sheridan dissect the matchup in this week’s Double Coverage.

Archer: Nick Foles was awful when these teams met earlier in the season. Where has that guy gone?

Phil Sheridan: This is the great mystery of the Eagles’ season. Theories abound. Foles had been on the Eagles’ injury report the week before that with a groin injury. Was it the groin? He left the game with a concussion. Had he suffered it earlier and been affected by that? He didn’t play well in a bowl game at Arizona. Did he shrivel up in big games? Did Jerry Jones have his family tied up in a dungeon?

It was just such an outlier of a performance from anything else he’s done this season, it seemed like there had to be some explanation. Best guess: He had a bad day. A really bad day. And he moved on from it and hasn’t let it happen again. In his next game, he threw seven touchdown passes in Oakland. He’s been outstanding since.

We’ve heard a lot about how involved Romo has been in running the offense. How much would that change with Kyle Orton in there? And is there any way he’s ready to play at all?

Archer: Honestly, I don’t believe it changes all that much. The scheme will be the same. What they will miss is Romo’s ability to make things up as things break down. That is not Orton’s game. The offensive line has played much better down the stretch, especially running the ball. The pass protection has been good enough, but needs to be better because Orton simply doesn’t move like Romo. But Orton has the arm strength to push the ball down the field, and his receivers like him even if they have not had much work with him. I’ll go back to 2010 when the Cowboys lost Romo to a collarbone injury and Jon Kitna took over. In the six games Kitna started and finished with Garrett as interim head coach, the Cowboys averaged more than 30 points a game. They need to have Orton trust the system the way Kitna trusted the system.

How much credit does Chip Kelly deserve for getting the Eagles to this point? Certainly things didn't look stable when the Cowboys visited in October.

Sheridan: Kelly deserves tons of credit. The Eagles were a smoking husk by the end of the Andy Reid era, as evidenced by their 4-12 record last season. Change was necessary, and Kelly is about as big a change as you can get. The players bought into it immediately, and they really seem to enjoy playing for him. He got a great effort from them Sunday night against the Bears, just hours after the Cowboys won and the Eagles knew they couldn’t clinch the division.

I think two things happened to account for the rough patch the Eagles hit in October. The Giants had found some ways to disrupt the Eagles’ run-blocking scheme, and the Cowboys deployed a similar approach. Also, the quarterbacks were both terrible and injured, in that order, in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Giants. Kelly adjusted the run blocking, Foles came back, and the Eagles are 6-1 since.

Let me ask the flip side of the Foles question: The Cowboys didn't have DeMarcus Ware in that first game. They dominated Foles and held LeSean McCoy to 55 rushing yards. What happened to those guys?

Archer: Injuries have happened. The Cowboys have lost Sean Lee to hamstring and neck injuries, and he’s not likely to play Sunday because of the neck. Morris Claiborne has missed six of the past seven games with a hamstring injury. He might play Sunday, but he’s not been effective when he has played. Ware has not been anywhere close to form because of a variety of injuries and just poor play. Jason Hatcher has slumped after a solid start. Brandon Carr has slumped, too. Bruce Carter has not played well. Are you sensing a trend? To me there is a huge crisis of confidence with this defense from a player and coach standpoint. I don’t know if the players trust the coaches, and I don’t know if the coaches can dial up changes to stop anybody. But they can hang their hat on that first game as they enter this one, so we won’t have to bring up Kelly’s collegiate success vs. Monte Kiffin as much.

LeSean McCoy for MVP? It sure seems like he's perfect for what Kelly wants to do.

Sheridan: Bears coach Marc Trestman nailed it after McCoy went for 133 rushing yards Sunday night: “I don’t think it would matter what offensive system he plays in. Chip has done a tremendous job putting his offense in, no doubt about it, but he is just a great back.”

One of the perennial gripes about Andy Reid was that he called running plays about as often as he turned down a second helping. That was true when he had Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook and McCoy. But McCoy was effective in Reid’s offense. It’s just that Kelly loves to run the ball, and his play designs reliably get McCoy into the secondary with one man to beat. And McCoy can beat almost anybody one-on-one.

MVP? Guessing the Sportsman of the Year Peyton Manning already has his name engraved on the trophy, but McCoy certainly belongs in the conversation.

What is the sense you get of the Cowboys' mindset? Do they see the blowout in Chicago, the collapse against Green Bay and the struggle at Washington as three bad games in a row? Or does pulling out the win Sunday give them a feeling they're back on the right track? And are they right?

Archer: If you asked me this after the Redskins game, I would say they are riding high. It was the kind of win that can carry a team emotionally. But with the Romo news, I think that deflates them some. This team has shown a resiliency. They bounced back after tough losses to Denver, Detroit and Green Bay. I’ll give Garrett credit for that. He has a mentally tough team. He just doesn’t have a terribly talented team. Romo creates so much for this offense that they will need others to raise their games. It’s possible. They still have Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Miles Austin on offense. That’s not a shabby group by any stretch. And Orton is smart enough to know what he isn’t. I think with the Romo news coming early in the week, it will allow them to prepare knowing he probably can’t play.

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PHILADELPHIA -- Cornerback Cary Williams raised some eyebrows a couple weeks back when he said he was "glad" the Eagles lost to the Minnesota Vikings.

"It definitely knocked us off our high horse," Williams said. "It's something that was bittersweet. It was sad that we lost, the bitter part, but it was sweet that we lost. ... It's great that they were able to knock us off. We learned from the experience. We're going to get better."

Two weeks after getting trounced by a Minnesota team without Adrian Peterson and with Matt Cassel playing quarterback, the Eagles are again preparing for a depleted opponent. This time, it's the Dallas Cowboys and the stakes are higher. With a division title on the line, it turns out Williams had a point -- the Eagles might be better for having been humbled a bit.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Matt Cassel and the Vikings hammered the Eagles 48-30 earlier this month.
"You saw what happened the last time we played a backup quarterback," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Nobody here is taking anybody lightly."

The Cowboys appear likely to be without their quarterback, Tony Romo, and their quarterback on defense, inside linebacker Sean Lee.

"I know they're going to miss (Lee)," Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. "But I also know teams rally when guys are hurt, so I'm going to be ready for their best shot."

It isn't that the Eagles don't care who plays quarterback Sunday night. There are very practical football considerations if the less mobile Kyle Orton plays instead of the freewheeling Romo.

"You know where he's going to be," linebacker Brandon Graham said or Orton.

"We have to get back there really fast," linebacker Trent Cole said. "He likes to get the ball out. He's a rhythm quarterback. We've just got to get to him. Romo, he's very athletic. He can get out of the pocket. He can get hot.

"Of course we're very curious -- who's going to be the quarterback? But it's not going to change anything. We might not know until we step on the field who we're playing."

Head coach Chip Kelly didn't buy the Minnesota angle for a minute. That would mean acknowledging that his team wasn't prepared properly for the Vikings game, and Kelly isn't about to do that.

"I don't think that was our mind set going in," Kelly said. "I thought we had a great week of practice and as I said before, I think you've got to give Matt Cassel a lot of credit. Go back and watch the film of how well he played in that game -- they made plays and we didn't and that's what it is. I don't think anybody in this group was like, ‘Hey, we don't have to get ready this week because such and such and such and such isn't going to play.' I know this team is not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe trick. We are not concerned with that stuff."

However you brand it, the loss to Minnesota is fresh enough to prevent a repeat of the Eagles' flat approach. And if that doesn't do it, the stakes this Sunday should.

"We're fighting for the division," Cole said. "This is. Win or go home. This is where we start our road to the Super Bowl or we end our road to the Super Bowl and get ready for next year. This is big."

Kelly on Cowboys QBs, Curious George

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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PHILADELPHIA – Eagles head coach Chip Kelly talked about the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback situation, his own brief injury report, and the ol’ banana-in-the-tailpipe trick. A few highlights from Kelly’s Thursday press availability:
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    Kelly
  • Whether Tony Romo or Kyle Orton starts at quarterback, Kelly said, his team’s preparations won’t change.“I don’t think it changes their offense much just because of who the backup is,” Kelly said. “I think they’re going to stick with what they do. They obviously have playmakers in Dez Bryant and [Jason] Witten. They’re going to run the ball with DeMarco Murray, who didn’t play against us in the first game.”On Monday, Kelly praised Romo’s performance in bringing Dallas back for a fourth-quarter comeback win at Washington the day before. With reports that Romo has a serious back injury, Kelly was even more impressed.“If he can’t go, the first thing that came across my head will be that that performance against the Redskins was pretty special,” Kelly said. “He did what he did, with the ability to bring them back and win that football game. The one thing you know about him is he’s an unbelievable competitor.”
  • Backup center Julian Vandervelde “tweaked” his back, Kelly said. Vandervelde did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday. He has been active for all 15 games because he’s starter Jason Kelce’s understudy. “We’ll see how he is,” Kelly said.Kelly said left guard Evan Mathis has played some center, but it was right guard Todd Herremans running with the second team during the open portion of practice.
  • This week’s random non-football reference came courtesy of the Man in the Yellow Hat. Kelly was asked if he was curious about how his team will respond in a big-game situation in Dallas Sunday night.“I don’t think curious is the word, I think excited is the word,” Kelly said. “I think we’re all excited about going down there and what’s at stake and what we can do. I’m not Curious George wondering whether we’re going to show up or if we’re going to show up. We’re excited about playing a really good team that beat us the last time we played them. Obviously, there’s a lot at stake.”Curious George. Winston Churchill. Kent Tekulve. You never know with Kelly.

    Maybe he had the “curious little monkey” on his mind a few minutes later. Asked if he was worried that the Eagles would let down based on the reports about Romo’s injury, Kelly scoffed at the idea.

    “I know this team’s not going to fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick,” Kelly said.
PHILADELPHIA -- Cary Williams realized he had a problem when he began to hear the same thing from the most important people in his life.

The Eagles cornerback heard from his brother and his best friend. His longtime pastor expressed his concern. And finally, when his wife Amanda confronted him about the issue, Williams knew it was time to face the truth.

He was being too darn nice.

"When my wife said it, it really kind of sunk in," Williams said. "I had to listen. She's been following for a long time and watching when I played. She said I just didn't have the same aggressiveness I used to."

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Cary Williams
AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams played more aggressively against the Bears on the advice of his wife and his pastor.
The Williams they knew had a mean streak -- on the football field, that is. Williams is a doting husband and father off the field. On it, he has an edge. Or at least he did when he was playing with the Baltimore Ravens. Since signing with the Eagles as a free agent this year, Williams' inner circle noticed a change in his on-field demeanor.

"I gave a bunch of excuses why," Williams said. "When I looked in the mirror, it is what it is. I am what I put out on the field. I just wanted to come out and play with aggressiveness and a passion for the game. You have to have that type of nastiness to you, to a degree."

If the words of his wife and family and friends didn't do it, then the Eagles' 48-30 loss in Minnesota would have. The secondary, including Williams, was beaten up and down the field by Vikings receiver Greg Jennings and his cohorts.

With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears coming to town, Williams knew it was time.

"I had to get back in character," he said.

And he did. The whole secondary played with an aggressiveness and physicality that was missing from the Minnesota game. Williams broke up two passes intended for Marshall. The second was an especially physical play that had Marshall looking at Williams like he'd gone crazy.

"Our corners challenged them," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "Our corners stepped up on their own and handled them. I had a lot of things in the plan, but as I watched it unfold and saw how the corners were holding up -- and they really were holding up well -- I left them out there on their own. They did a great job."

Williams and Bradley Fletcher seem better against bigger, more physical receivers. That's not a bad thing with Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys coming up this Sunday. Bryant is a favorite target of Tony Romo, but with Romo reportedly sidelined, he may be even more of a security blanket for backup quarterback Kyle Orton. He's the kind of receiver who can catch balls thrown near him, even if he's covered.

That will require Williams to stay in character.

"People were telling me I'm not the same guy I was in Baltimore, with the ferociousness," Williams said. "When they said that, I had to change the perception. Hopefully, I did."

He did it by being the nasty, aggressive Williams -- the one his wife and pastor want him to be.
PHILADELPHIA -- If it’s better to be lucky than good, the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles could win the NFC East title by being a little of both.

They opened the season against Washington, with Robert Griffin III looking very much like a young quarterback who hadn’t taken a preseason snap.

They played Tampa Bay in Mike Glennon's second career start, while the Buccaneers were dealing with fallout from the Josh Freeman mess and a MRSA outbreak.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Matt RourkeTony Romo passed for 317 yards in Dallas' 17-3 win against Philadelphia on Oct. 20.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone six days before the Eagles played the Packers, and his backup, Seneca Wallace, left with an injury in the first quarter.

When the Eagles were worried about how to cover Calvin Johnson, eight inches of snow covered the Detroit receiver for them.

Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson injured his foot the week before the Eagles played the Vikings. His backup, Toby Gerhart, also missed that game.

And now Tony Romo will be out for the biggest game of the season, the virtual playoff game between the Eagles and Dallas, according to ESPN reports.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Chip Kelly’s super-secret sports science program includes hexes and voodoo dolls.

While there will be plenty of jokes about the Cowboys being better off without Romo and his 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games, his absence clearly takes some of the luster off of this much anticipated battle for the NFC East title.

Kelly, speaking before the news broke, had little regard for those criticisms of Romo. He cited the game-winning touchdown Romo threw Sunday to beat Washington and force the showdown with the Eagles.

“Fourth [down], game on the line, scrambles, keeps the ball alive, hits the mark to [DeMarco] Murray and they win the game,” Kelly said. “I'm always on what you did last, and what he did last was pretty special -- the way he avoided the rush, kept drives alive, and I think he's as talented a quarterback as there is in this league.

“Any time with that position, sometimes I think you get probably too much credit and too much blame. But he's one of the really, really, really good quarterbacks we've seen, and I said that the first time we played him. If you're a fan of just quarterback play, he's pretty special.”

As the Eagles learned the hard way, a little luck is no guarantee. They went to Minnesota two Sundays ago knowing that Peterson and Gerhart were unlikely to play. And they still were stomped 48-30 by Matt Cassel and the Vikings. A virtually unknown running back named Matt Asiata ran for three touchdowns in that game.

Cowboys backup quarterback Kyle Orton has more of a pedigree than Asiata or -- sticking with his position -- Glennon, Wallace or Scott Tolzien, who played most of the Packers game. Orton has faced the Eagles twice. He beat them in 2008 while with the Bears, and lost to them the following year as a Bronco.

Though the Eagles have had their share of luck this season, they aren’t going to feel too sorry for the Cowboys. Remember, Michael Vick was their starting quarterback when the season began. After he was hurt, Nick Foles took over and played too well to be sent back down the depth chart.

Throughout that process, Kelly repeatedly said that you had to have two good quarterbacks in the NFL. The Packers found out what happens when you don’t. If Orton isn’t able to compete, that’s on the Cowboys for not having another quarterback in development.

The year Orton and the Bears beat them, the Eagles went to the NFC Championship Game against Arizona. If Orton can beat them this time, they’re going home.

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