Can the Eagles seize control of the NFC East?
It’s rare that an NFL squad with a 3-2 record faces a “must-win” situation in Week 7. That’s especially true during this season of parity, where no undefeated teams remain. Seventeen of the 32 franchises entered this weekend with records of 3-2, 3-3, or 2-3.
But for the Redskins, a visit to the Eagles for "Monday Night Football" likely decides their fate in the NFC East. After a Week 1 loss at home, 30-17, another one at Lincoln Financial Field gives the Eagles a season sweep. It drops Washington the equivalent of three games back (having lost the tiebreaker) with games at Seattle and Dallas (twice) still to come.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia keeps riding high with a young team that’s already overachieving. All of a sudden, the Eagles' 5-1 record looks stout with Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines and Ezekiel Elliott fighting that six-game suspension. A win tonight would get them to 6-1, leave them a game up on all NFC competition and put them in the driver’s seat for the conference’s top seed. With cupcakes like the Bears, 49ers, and Giants left on the schedule a playoff berth, at minimum, would be in the cards for head coach Doug Pederson in only his second season running the team.
Can Carson Wentz continue his sophomore surge? Or will Kirk Cousins, Chris Thompson and the Redskins' offense avenge their Week 1 defeat?
Washington at Phildelphia
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Eagles -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Kirk Cousins will show up?
There’s been so much focus this season on the improved play of Carson Wentz. But Cousins, in potentially his final year with the Redskins, has turned his play around after that disappointing Week 1 loss.
Since then, he’s thrown for eight touchdowns and just one interception. His QB rating of 106.4 leads the NFC. And while accuracy has been a bit of an issue at times, in particular against the 49ers, he’s been sacked a total of four times the last four games. (The Eagles sacked him four times in their Week 1 win.)
The key is whether Cousins can keep it up against an Eagles defense that dominated him. The Week 1 defeat was punctuated by his poor play: an interception at the goal line and two fumbles. The second one ended a potential last-drive comeback where the Redskins controlled their own destiny.
We’ve seen this type of inconsistent play from Cousins before. To get the big money going forward, the quarterback needs to prove he can rise above in big games like this one.
2. Which team can run the ball better?
The Eagles, despite losing versatile back Darren Sproles for the season, rank fourth in the NFL with 132.5 rushing yards per game. After a shaky preseason, LeGarrette Blount has found his groove and is second in the league with 5.6 yards per carry. It’s clear the offensive line, which struggled last season after the 10-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, has gelled. Jason Peters, the nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle, remains one of the league’s most consistent players.
On the flip side, Philadelphia's top-ranked rushing defense will pose a problem for the Redskins’ rushing attack. Chris Thompson has been a tremendous pass catcher out of the backfield, ranking 10th in the NFC in receiving yards but has gained just 94 yards on the ground the last three games. Washington averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against San Francisco last week, which is not a good sign considering the 49ers' defense hasn't been on the same level as the Eagles' this season.
The Redskins' offensive line must do a better job as well of containing Philadelphia defensive end Fletcher Cox. Cox, whose fumble recovery for a touchdown sealed the Week 1 victory, has developed into an All-Pro-caliber player.
“He’s tall, he’s long. He uses great leverage,” Washington right guard Brandon Scherff told the Washington Post. “When he gets into your chest, you’re pretty much screwed.”
3. Turnovers and special teams
The Eagles have had one of the feel-good kicker stories in the league this season with Jake Elliott. It’s easy to forget the Eagles were headed toward overtime and potentially a 1-2 start before Elliott rescued them with a team-record 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants in Week 3.
Since that point, Elliott has gone eight for his last eight and his confidence has shot through the roof. The Eagles feel comfortable in any late-game situation they’ve got the edge on special teams.
The Redskins, meanwhile have needed Cousins' magic a couple of times after getting a bit sloppy with the ball. Their nine giveaways are the most in the NFC East and contribute to an overall minus-one turnover margin. Four turnovers and three fumbles lost against the Eagles in Week 1 are their season highs. Something as simple as taking care of the football will make a difference against the Eagles, who feast off giveaways.
This game, as it usually does between these two longtime divisional rivals, should come down to the final drive. But that’s where Carson Wentz will begin to separate himself from Kirk Cousins. The second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft has been playing like it, coming into his own and he should benefit from the boost of a hometown crowd. Wentz’s last game against Carolina (3 TDs, no picks) might have been the best of his career.
Between that and the ability of the Eagles' defense to force turnovers, they should have the edge in this one. But it’s close.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Redskins 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.