These are heady times in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia hasn’t seen a football team this good since before Terrell Owens brought the Donovan McNabb-era to a screeching halt. At 10-1, the Eagles are firmly entrenched as one of the NFL’s best teams.
While what Doug Pederson has been able to do in his second year as Philly’s head coach is impressive, we’re all about to find out just how good they really are.
Sunday night’s game at Seattle is the first of a treacherous three-game road trip. The Eagles will follow-up the Seahawks, with a visit to the 8-3 Los Angeles Rams and then a trip up I-95 to face the New York Giants. (OK, so 2 out of 3 on the treacherous scale.)
Win and the Eagles will shut up even their most ardent doubters (looking at you, Nick Wright). Lose and they open the door for the Minnesota Vikings to steal home-field advantage in the playoffs. Which way will it go? The answers to these five burning questions will tell the tale.
How Good Is Seattle’s Defense?
Ever since its Super Bowl run in Pete Carroll‘s fourth season, there has been an accepted assumption that Seattle’s defense is dominant. And, most years, even if the end result wasn’t a championship, Richard Sherman and crew have usually been up to the task.
Seattle is still a Top 10 defense in a number of statistical categories, but injuries are starting to pile up. Sherman is gone for the season. So is defensive end Cliff Avril. Safety Kam Chancellor is out with a neck injury. Fellow safety Earl Thomas has a bad foot. Linebacker Bobby Wagner has a tight hamstring.
Carroll can still devise a good defensive game plan, but at a certain point, he has to have players who are healthy enough to execute it.
Can The Eagles Run Defense Handle Russell Wilson?
One of the top stories of Philadelphia’s season has been the shutdown play of the Eagles run defense. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz‘s charges are allowing an NFL low 65.1 yards per game. After giving up over 100 yards to the Cowboys, Fletcher Cox and friends took it out on the hapless Bears. Chicago managed a whopping six yards total against Philly.
The Eagles have, however, given up chunks of yardage on the ground to quarterbacks. Both Cam Newton and Kirk Cousins found success breaking containment. Which brings us to Wilson, who is Seattle’s best rushing attack. In two of his last four games, the Seahawks signal caller has topped 70 yards on the ground. Wilson has been on a roll for most of the season. Seattle’s best chance of handing the Eagles a rare loss is for its quarterback to run wild.
Can Carson Wentz Handle Seattle’s 12th Man?
Wentz is having an MVP-caliber season. That’s indisputable. As Philly.com’s Paul Domowitch noted there is a marked difference between the second-year quarterback’s statistics on the road versus at home.
Last season, as a rookie, Wentz struggled during his trip to Seattle. He completed only 51-percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in a 26-15 loss. The fans at CenturyLink Field pride themselves on being able to disrupt opposing offenses. Wentz and the Eagles have spent the week working on using a silent count.
If the Eagles winning streak is going to continue, Wentz is going to have to handle the decibels in the Pacific Northwest.
Who’s The Eagles Middle Linebacker?
Heading into the season, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks was thought to be one of the defenders, after Cox, that the Eagles could least afford to lose. Since he went down with a torn Achilles, though, the Eagles defense hasn’t missed a beat.
Hicks’ replacement, Joe Walker, is also dealing with an injury and may miss the game. That leaves Schwartz to chose between Najee Goode and Dannell Ellerbe if Walker can’t go. Ellerbe has only been with the Eagles since November 13 and hasn’t played since ending last season with the New Orleans Saints. He also hasn’t played in more than nine games in a season since 2013 due to a variety of injuries.
Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks can take care of most of what the Eagles ask their linebackers to do, but it does show just how thin they are at the position. If either were to go down and Philadelphia has to press Ellerbe into more than spot duty, that would be a giant issue.
Is This Lane Johnson‘s Pro Bowl moment?
There is a sentiment that teams must play their best offensive tackle on the left side, the traditional blind spot of a right-handed quarterback. Of course, as soon as defensive coordinators had enough evidence to prove that quarterbacks don’t deal any better with pressure coming right at them, they began shifting their top rusher to the other side. That way, they get to rush against the weaker of the opponents’ two tackles.
Since Jason Peters was lost with a season-ending injury the team has gone the opposite of conventional wisdom. Johnson is the Eagles best offensive lineman and the team kept him on the right side.
Already this season, Johnson has faced off against stellar pass rushers in Ryan Kerrigan (Redskins), Melvin Ingram (Chargers), perennial All-Pro Von Miller (Broncos) and NFL sack leader Demarcus Lawrence (Cowboys). In each case, the Eagles have gotten the better of the match-up.
The Seahawks will throw Michael Bennett and his 7.5 sacks at Johnson. Given the crowd noise, the tackle has to be at his very best to keep Seattle’s talkative defensive star from being a major disruption.
Right tackles traditionally do not make the Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams because of the inherent bias against them. With a prime-time showcase on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, though, Johnson just might be the player who can buck that trend if he shows once again that he can neutralize the best rushers in the game.