Playoff spots on the line as the reigning Super Bowl champs seek a resurgence behind Nick Foles - Part II
The Houston Texans have never beaten the Philadelphia Eagles in the history of their franchise. For J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and company, this season may finally be their best chance.
But Houston, despite a 10-4 record, may be running into a buzzsaw the second they step onto Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles have suddenly come alive at 7-7, pulling off their biggest upset since 1995 against the Rams last weekend behind the inspiring play of backup quarterback Nick Foles. Last year’s Super Bowl MVP is suddenly in the running to become this year’s savior, the Eagles positioned to make the postseason if they win out and get some help from the Seahawks or Vikings ahead of them.
The Texans, meanwhile have a two-game lead in the AFC South with two games remaining and also can secure a coveted first-round bye. Just one win clinches the division as well as a postseason bid. A loss still comes with wiggle room; they play their finale against the reeling 4-10 Jaguars. But you want to go into the playoffs playing your best football, armed with an ability to rest an extra week and get healthy. That gained some added importance for the Texans when star running back Lamar Miller suffered an ankle injury against the Jets last week and missed most of the game, nearly tipping the scales in a contest that was in doubt until late in the fourth quarter.
Can the Texans wipe away that ugly road game off the map and get back to playing solid football? Or will the Eagles, riding the high of Foles’ return spark a surprising playoff run just two weeks after being buried alive by the Cowboys?
Houston at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 23 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -2.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Is Nick Foles a one-week wonder or the Eagles' savior?
What a difference a week makes. After 11 straight games on the bench, Foles was called upon in a near-impossible situation. Carson Wentz’s back injury left the Eagles ready to shut down their star indefinitely; it also explains a season filled with inconsistent play and stiff throws against the Cowboys with the playoffs on the line. At 6-7, the division seemingly out of reach it made sense to give Foles a 2019 audition for others rather than throw Wentz out there with a fractured vertebra, risking further damage.
All Foles did was start up an Eagles offense that’s spent the year stuck in neutral. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt and injected confidence into a team that’s lacked it despite those Super Bowl rings. The score was 13-13 at halftime and the Foles came out swinging early in the second half; add in a few key defensive plays and that led to 17 straight points.
Suddenly, that 30-23 victory has changed the narrative and put the focus back on Foles. It’s assumed, of course, someone with Foles’ resume wouldn’t spend another year under contract when other teams would pay him to start.
But it wasn’t lost on many observers this quarterback started a miracle run for this team against the Rams a year ago. A second straight comeback, this one into playoff contention, will make the Eagles think twice about letting him leave and start for another team next season. Could they pay starting QB salary to keep both of them on the roster? Would they consider the unthinkable and bench Wentz, their franchise player?
It all seems like crazy talk, especially with what the Eagles have invested in Wentz. But the way in which Foles played had at least a few sports talk aficionados this week bringing up the possibility of trading Wentz for at least two future first-round draft picks. That’s how much his backup has changed the mood of the city in just seven days.
Now, if Foles goes out and lays an egg against the Texans? Normalcy returns to Philadelphia as the focus shifts to fixing a banged-up secondary and run game in the coming offseason. But a second straight win, leaving this team on the brink of defending their Super Bowl title? The Wentz-Foles drama, once a storybook partnership, will heat up considerably.
Foles was clearly playing for a starting job these last three weeks. Sunday might tell us if there’s a chance (however small) that could be in Philadelphia.
2. Can the Texans run the football?
The Texans clearly suffered last week from the second Lamar Miller limped off the field in the first quarter. Their 47 rushing yards were easily a season low, the second straight week they’ve gone under 100 for the game.
But the Eagles' run defense has clearly shown itself beatable. Sunday’s Rams game, where a hobbled Todd Gurley never gained traction, has been the exception, not the rule. It ended five straight games of the Eagles allowing at least 100 rushing yards to teams with star running backs: Ezekiel Elliott of Dallas, Adrian Peterson of the Redskins (all of his damage basically coming on a 90-yard TD run) and rookie Saquon Barkley of the Giants.
For the Texans to jump-start their sputtering offense, they have to capitalize on the opportunity while avoiding Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Miller, even when healthy two weeks ago totaled just 33 yards and 2.4 yards per carry; he’s the type of running back that struggles to maintain consistency. Change-of-pace back Alfred Blue may need to step up in a big way but he’s had a down year, gaining no more than 54 yards in any game. Blue had a pitiful six yards on just nine carries against the Jets.
Another outing like that will lead to a losing effort. The Texans' offense can’t just be Deshaun Watson throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, the star wide receiver who’s nursing a leg injury himself.
3. Which defense will force turnovers?
The Texans have done a great job this season protecting the football. Watson has gone the last four games without throwing a pick while their plus-10 turnover margin ranks third in the NFL. The Eagles, at minus-four, rank a dismal 22nd, a far cry from the respectable plus-11 number they posted last year.
But those full season stats don’t tell the whole story. It’s been takeaways that have kept the Eagles both in the game and then winning it these past two weeks. The defense sent the Cowboys game to overtime with two interceptions and a fumble; it was the first time all season they’ve picked a quarterback twice in one game. Then, against the Rams, it was a second straight three-turnover performance that included a dazzling interception by Avonte Maddox and a key forced fumble on a Rams punt return with just three minutes left in the game.
Compare that to the Texans, forcing just one turnover against the Jets while registering just five total sacks in their last three games. It’s a slump that matches up well against a suddenly resurgent Eagles offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl selection Brandon Brooks. If they can hold J.J. Watt at bay, allowing Foles to hold onto the football and limit mistakes, the Eagles can be in position to win with their defense.
The Texans have a playoff-caliber team. But they know the Jaguars loom next week and a win there may still earn them not only the division but a first-round bye. By comparison, they’re facing an Eagles team on the road this week they’ve never beaten and nursing injuries to arguably two of their top three offensive players.
That’s not a recipe for success. The Eagles are coming in hot, confident and see their opening to sneak into the postseason. It looks like Nick Foles, Chapter 2, has a lot left to write.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Texans 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo by Brian Garfinkel, courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)