Week 13 concludes with an NFC East elimination game
No one may have been shouting at the television more during "Thursday Night Football" than the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. They were supposed to be sitting there eating popcorn while their rival for the division, the Dallas Cowboys, received a national thumping at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. After all, just two weeks back, the Saints slaughtered the Eagles 48-7. Surely, Drew Brees would feast on the Cowboys too? A 6-6 record would leave them in a perfect position to capitalize, right?
Not exactly. An emergent Cowboys “D” kept the Saints on their heels, producing a shocking 13-10 upset that changed the course of the NFC East. Suddenly, a 3-5 Dallas slump is a 7-5 turnaround that’s left them a half-game atop the division. A schedule that features the Bucs and the Giants should give them at least nine wins.
That makes Redskins-Eagles a virtual division elimination game. If the Redskins fall, they’re 6-6 and the equivalent of two games behind the Cowboys (they lose the tiebreaker). If the Eagles lose? The reigning Super Bowl champs are 5-7, down three games to the Cowboys and would need to win out in order to have a chance. Did I mention their schedule includes the Rams on the road, the Texans at home and a date with those red hot Cowboys next week?
What a wild, wacky turn in the NFL’s most unpredictable division this year. But the one thing we now know for sure is these two teams, riddled by injuries, have officially run out of mulligans. Can the Redskins deal the Eagles a knockout blow in what’s been an ugly Super Bowl hangover?
Washington at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -6.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Which Eagles defense will show up?
The Eagles were a tale of two halves last week in their win against the Giants. In the first half, the defense was atrocious, giving up 346 yards of total offense against a 3-7 team; it was the Giants' best total for a half since 1985. Rookie Saquon Barkley was running roughshod over the defensive line, posting 94 yards on just nine carries, a whopping 10.4 yards per carry. Eli Manning threw for 236 yards and was lights out until an interception on the final drive of the half.
But that Malcolm Jenkins pick seemed to invigorate an Eagles secondary that has been devastated by injuries. Somehow, as the second half wore on, the ragtag bunch of De’Vaunte Bausby, Chandon Sullivan and Cre’Von Leblanc superglued themselves together. With a little assistance from one semi-healthy corner (Rasul Douglas) they held Manning to just 61 passing yards the rest of the game.
Can they overcome the injuries again Monday night? To be fair, the group got an assist from Giants head coach Pat Shurmur who inexplicably pivoted away from what worked early on as the game went on. But Redskins backup quarterback Colt McCoy is arguably a step below Manning. Adrian Peterson, battling through injuries, is a step below Barkley despite a strong comeback year. There is no Odell Beckham Jr. on this Redskins team let alone a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver. Bottom line, there’s a chance for this group to build on their momentum. And they’ll likely be getting additional help; talented 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones looks on track to return from his hamstring problems.
2. Two struggling run games look to find their footing
Peterson started this season as the potential Comeback Player of the Year. What the 33-year-old Peterson has been able to do after being discarded (758 rushing yards in 11 games) has been exceptional. For a time, he and quarterback Alex Smith were on a mission as old guys with a chip on their shoulder.
But Father Time, it turns out, had the speed to catch up. Smith is out for the year, maybe his career after a gruesome leg injury two weeks ago and Peterson has been running hurt. The last four weeks, he’s gained no more than 68 yards in any game, averaging a paltry 3.0 yards per carry. A nagging shoulder injury, which he re-aggravated against the Cowboys, also kept him from practicing this week. That’s a bad sign facing a defense ranked 11th against the run, a number that would be much better if not for getting bamboozled by Barkley twice.
The Eagles’ run game, meanwhile is still finding its way. At least they have a candidate of the future: undrafted free agent Josh Adams is working hard to replace the load of injured Jay Ajayi. Adams had a career-high 84 yards last week on 22 carries, leaping over Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement on the depth chart. But it’s hard to trust a guy who wasn’t even in the Eagles’ long-term plans back in August. The team remains without a single 100-yard rusher all season, putting more pressure than necessary on Wentz to make the offense tick.
Picking up 100 yards on the ground may be out of the question Monday night. But Adams needs to outrun Peterson (more possible than it looks on paper) in order for this game to tilt the Eagles’ way.
3. Minimizing mistakes
Wentz had a nice recovery from his shellacking against the Saints last week. A career-worst three-interception game was followed up with a turnover-free performance. Most importantly, Wentz reconnected with his favorite target Zach Ertz; they combined for 91 yards together after just two catches and 15 yards in the Superdome.
McCoy, meanwhile, had a rough transition in his first full game starting for the Redskins. At times against the Cowboys defense, he looked brilliant; a 53-yard strike to Vernon Davis kept his team in the game early. But three interceptions of his own meant the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott vastly outplayed him; two touchdown strikes from Prescott to Amari Cooper showed the different levels of the team’s two offenses.
McCoy did use Jordan Reed better than perhaps Smith has over the course of the season, pushing him over 70 yards receiving a second straight week. The problem is there’s a limited amount of weapons to choose from otherwise. That’s trouble if a hobbled Peterson forces the passing game to win it for the Redskins. Can Josh Doctson truly be depended on? Jamison Crowder is questionable for the game and hasn’t been on the field since early October. Davis is an underrated target but he’s also 34 years old and hadn’t caught a ball the two games prior to Thanksgiving. Who’s left?
McCoy at least gets a soft secondary to throw to. But there need to be receivers open on short routes in order to keep him from resisting the temptation to throw deep. Chances are that won’t be the case, increasing the risk of costly turnovers.
The Eagles finally took a step last week they accomplished with regularity in 2017. With their season on the line, Carson Wentz produced a late fourth-quarter drive that produced a game-winning field goal. Other than arguably his Week 3 return against the Colts it was the first time this offense stood up under pressure.
That bodes well against a Redskins team that doesn’t have time for Colt McCoy to learn on the job. His three interceptions last week won’t repeat themselves against this depleted secondary. But one or two mistakes should be enough for an Eagles team reduced to fighting for its playoff life.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Redskins 14
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.