Commentary

Every game is a playoff game for Eagles

It's nothing but must-wins for Philadelphia, which is trying to overcome a dreadful start

Originally Published: October 27, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Even though it's still October, the Philadelphia Eagles have entered playoff mode.

Until they can climb out of the 1-4 hole they created for themselves, the Eagles have to treat each game like a playoff game. Another loss at this juncture could effectively end hopes for this season. Before the bye week, the Eagles focused and beat the Redskins on the road.

On Sunday night, they have to try to reverse a recent trend of playing bad home games and beat the Dallas Cowboys. Including last year's playoffs, the Eagles have lost five straight at home. That happened to the Eagles from 1994-95. Andy Reid plans to change that.

Against the Redskins and their all-out blitzes, Reid had Michael Vick work out of more three-step drops. Getting rid of the ball quickly saved his body from extra hits and helped the offense's tempo. That's needed. More defenses are blitzing defensive backs to disrupt him.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vick has been harassed by a blitzing defensive back in four of his six games. In those games, the defensive back blitzed at least 30 percent of the time. That happened only five times all of last season. The strategy has had an impact.

When a defensive back isn't rushing Vick, he completes 65 percent of his passes. When the DB comes, his percentage drops to 53 percent. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan understands those numbers and will take his shots.

The Cowboys' problem is their running attack. Felix Jones is out with a high ankle sprain and reports emerged Saturday that the team waived Tashard Choice, who's been injured. That leaves rookie DeMarco Murray, who was able to rush for 253 yards against the Rams, but the Eagles aren't as bad as the Rams.

Still, the pressure is on the Eagles to win this game.

Here are the 10 top trends and stories for Week 8:

1. Matchup problems for the Steelers: One of the fascinating aspects of the AFC is how top teams match up against each other. The Colts -- when they had Peyton Manning -- struggled against the Chargers and the Patriots. The Patriots struggle in the playoffs against the Ravens, Jets or teams that bring man-to-man defenses. Tom Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers because their defense offers him a favorable matchup. Brady usually does well against teams that play zone. The Steelers Fire Zone blitz is designed for sacks and turnovers, but great quarterbacks can move the ball against it. That's the problem defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau faces heading into Sunday's showdown in Heinz Field. In seven games against the Steelers, Brady has 14 touchdown passes and a 104.8 quarterback rating. The Steelers' defense not only bends against Brady, it breaks. Cornerback Ike Taylor is the one pure man coverage defender on the Steelers' roster. Can the Steelers change this trend?

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireIt's been a tough season for Chris Johnson, but he has a chance to get back on track against the Colts' defense.

2. Fixing CJ2.9: Two years ago, Chris Johnson of the Titans was the toast of the NFL with his 2,006-yard rushing season. He acquired the nickname "CJ2K" but had to hold out of training camp to get a $13-million-a-year contract extension. During Sunday's 41-7 loss to the Houston Texans, Johnson -- who's averaging only 2.9 yards a carry -- was relentlessly booed by the Titans' home crowd. First-year head coach Mike Munchak said he was going to study what is wrong with the Titans' running game, but he's not listening to fans calling for Johnson's benching. Johnson ought to be able to get a 100-yard game against a Colts run defense that ranks 31st in the league. The Colts give up 151 yards a game rushing and 4.3 yards a carry. Texans defenders say the Titans' offensive line has become better at pass blocking than run blocking, but it also must be noted that four of the five blockers are the same ones who helped Johnson gain those 2,006 yards in 2009. Johnson vows he has not lost his burst or any of his 4.24 40 speed. He just needs to pick up his game against the Colts on Sunday or Halloween in Nashville will be a CJ2.9 boo-fest.

3. Chance to run away with AFC South: The Texans took care of business by blowing out the Titans last Sunday and, in doing so, took the lead in the AFC South. The Texans, who have home games the next two weeks against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, have a chance to go 6-3 and finally make the playoffs for the first time since entering the league as an expansion team. Matt Schaub won't have Andre Johnson (hamstring), but Arian Foster is recovered from his hamstring problems and back to form. On Nov. 13, the Texans travel to the up-and-down Tampa Bay Buccaneers before getting a bye, but they'd love nothing better than to have a game or two lead in the division over the Titans. Everyone in Houston knows Texans teams have blown prosperity too often, but the road to the playoffs is laid out in front of them.

4. Did Seahawks make mistake on Andy Dalton? Of all the quarterbacks in the 2011 draft, the Seahawks rated Dalton about the best for their offense. But instead of using the 25th pick in the first round to take him, the Seahawks believed the offensive line was a priority and drafted right tackle James Carpenter. Dalton, who's completed a respectable 59.1 percent of his passes in taking the Bengals to a 4-2 start, comes to Seattle this week. Carpenter struggled early but is doing better. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows he will be judged by the next quarterback he gets. Last year, he passed on Jimmy Clausen and that hasn't come back to haunt him. If the Seahawks finish in the top 10 of the draft, they might have a chance at Landry Jones or Matt Barkley. If that works out and those quarterbacks are better than Dalton, Seahawk fans will feel good about the future of the franchise. But if Dalton comes to Seattle and lights it up against the Seahawks' defense, it may be hard for Seattle fans to accept the Bengals' moving ahead of the Seahawks in the rebuilding process. .

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesAre the Broncos planning to run up the middle against Ndamukong Suh?

5. Trying to figure out Tebow: The Dolphins offered the framework for containing Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. They used a Cover 2 with man under that featured Jason Taylor spying the Broncos quarterback. Until the final five minutes of the game, Tebow was averaging only one completion a quarter. The Lions may be more of a man-to-man team, but they will try their best to frustrate Tebow. Of course, Broncos coach John Fox may have a trick up his sleeve for the Lions' defense. The idea is to run up the middle, aiming backs at defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is disruptive but also vulnerable to the run. The Lions are giving up 129 yards a game and 5 yards a carry on the ground. The most noticeable problem is in the middle of the field. Opponents are averaging 4.4 yards a carry going up the gut against the Lions. The 65 running attempts in the middle of the defense is third most in the league. The good news for the Lions is Knowshon Moreno, who is slow to the hole, starts for injured Willis McGahee, who underwent hand surgery Tuesday.

6. Where have all the weapons gone? Colt McCoy must feel as though he's going into games like a gunfighter with a pistol going against rifles. The Browns rank last in the NFL with only nine 20-yard plays. The next-lowest team is Tampa Bay with 17. Seeing former Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards in San Francisco on Sunday will be a reminder of what was supposed to be. The Browns used first-round picks on Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to bring explosiveness to the offense, but Eric Mangini came in and traded them away. With the exception of raw rookie wide receiver Greg Little, the Browns lack speed and explosiveness at the skill positions, and the offense is averaging only 16.2 points a game.

7. Another rookie showdown: Cam Newton is running away with Rookie of the Year honors as he continues to develop into a top-level quarterback. Armed with a victory over the Redskins last week, Newton is trying to turn his statistical success into wins. He has a decent chance to do that against Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings. Ponder did well running out of the pocket and firing downfield in a 33-27 loss to the Packers last week. Though he completed only 13 passes, Ponder moved the offense and scored points. Newton and the Panthers would love to go into the bye week with a 3-5 record and reflect on his remarkable start. He's ranked among the league leaders in 10-play and five-minute drives. He has rushed for seven touchdowns, and he has a chance to shatter many of the rookie quarterback records. He won his first meeting against a rookie quarterback when he beat Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars, 16-10, on Sept. 25.

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe addition of Kevin Kolb hasn't boosted the Cardinals' record. This week, they face the Ravens, whose offense has been disappointing.

8. Needing a house call from the offense doctor: After an embarrassing 12-7 loss to the Jaguars on Monday night, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs questioned the offensive play calling. Ray Rice didn't get enough carries. Joe Flacco is completing only 52.1 percent of his passes. He's completed only 44.3 percent of his passes since the opener. The Ravens have only 12 touchdown drives in 76 possessions. But as bad as things are for the Ravens' offense, Baltimore is 4-2 and has a good chance to make the playoffs. The Cardinals, who visit Baltimore on Sunday, traded a No. 2 pick and starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and the offense looks terrible. Kevin Kolb is throwing at a 4,000-yard season pace, but the Cards are 1-5 and averaging only 19.3 points a game. Ownership didn't cough up a five-year, $63 million contract for Kolb to get those results. If things weren't bad enough, halfback Beanie Wells has a knee injury and might miss the game. Defensively, the Cards are giving up 25.5 points a game and 388.2 yards a game. This house call might be the perfect remedy for what ails the Ravens' offense.

9. Crossing the border with all on the line: The Bills face an interesting juncture in their season. Are they for real? They catch the Washington Redskins on Sunday in Toronto at the perfect time. In the past two weeks, the Redskins have lost five starters -- Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger and Tim Hightower -- and benched starting quarterback Rex Grossman for John Beck. Injuries and poor play have turned the Redskins from 3-1 contenders to 3-3 pretenders. The Bills come off a bye week with a re-energized offense led by Ryan Fitzpatrick. If the Bills can win this game and beat the Jets next Sunday in Orchard Park, they have a chance to battle for a playoff spot. Things aren't all that great for the Bills, though. They don't have a pass rush and they've lost linebacker Shawne Merriman for the season. Left tackle Demetrius Bell still can't shake a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Donald Jones remains out with a high ankle sprain. But the Bills' having a winning a record after the hockey season started is progress. Since they started playing games in Toronto, the Bills haven't established home-field advantage. They are 0-3 in Toronto.

10. Winless and hopeless: It's hard to make a case for the losing streaks of the Dolphins and Rams to end. The Dolphins, fresh off blowing a potential win against the Broncos last Sunday, travel to the new Meadowlands to face a Giants team that got healthy during the bye week. Defensive end Justin Tuck's neck should feel good enough for him to pressure Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore. The swelling in Brandon Jacobs' knee has calmed enough so the Jacobs-Ahmad Bradshaw running attack should pound the Dolphins' defense. As for the Rams, can things get worse? Quarterback Sam Bradford has a high ankle sprain, so A.J. Feeley starts. The offensive line lost right tackle Jason Smith to a concussion and neck injury. The only thing preventing St. Louis fans from blasting the Rams is the fact the Cardinals made it to the World Series.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer