Division rivals face off with the NFC East title on the line for the Eagles
The New York Giants had the Philadelphia Eagles on the ropes just one month ago. A 17-3 halftime deficit had the Eagles staring at their fourth straight loss, a 5-8 record, and an impossible road to the NFC East title. Quarterback Carson Wentz was being outplayed by 38-year-old Eli Manning, who had spent most of this season sitting on the bench. Fans were wondering if Nick Foles could be fetched from the Jacksonville Jaguars in time for the second half.
It was a make-or-break moment for Wentz, a 2016 NFL first-round pick, to take control of this franchise, matching the faith the Eagles put in him with a multi-year contract extension earlier this year. Could he put this ailing team on his back and showcase the leadership needed to turn this ship around?
Heading into Sunday’s game with the Giants, it appears that answer is a resounding yes. Wentz engineered a 14-point second-half comeback in that last meeting, then drove them down the field in overtime to win 23-17. It was the first of three straight division wins, the last of which came against the Cowboys to springboard the Eagles atop the NFC East. Wentz’s numbers during that streak have been impressive — 910 passing yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions — especially considering half the team’s offense is sitting on injured reserve.
It makes the formula simple entering this season finale: if the Eagles win, they’re division champs and will host a wild card playoff game next weekend as the No. 4 seed. They can also get in, regardless of Sunday’s outcome, if the Cowboys lose to Washington at home.
For the Giants, they’d like to build on an overtime win against those Redskins last week, which lifted them out of the NFC East cellar. It’s the likely swan song for head coach Pat Shurmur, expected to be fired after a disappointing 4-11 season, and the future Hall of Fame quarterback Manning. Daniel Jones will start this time around, fresh off a career-high 352 yards passing and five touchdowns as the 2019 first-round pick keeps developing.
Will Jones’ athleticism stymie the Eagles defense at a crucial time? Or is their late-season momentum too much to overcome as the Super Bowl LII champs steamroll to another division title? The Giants have a chance to tie the all-time series — the Eagles currently lead 86-85-2 — if they can snap a six-game skid to their neighbors.
Philadelphia at New York
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 29 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -4.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Wentz keep propping up the Eagles' offense?
It’s incredible that the Eagles are 8-7 considering the long list of players they have sitting out. Among them: wide receivers DeSean Jackson (one catch since Week 1 — abdominal injury), Alshon Jeffery (foot surgery) and Nelson Agholor (knee).
All of them are expected to be off the field for the season finale with Wentz’s main target joining them: Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz (ribs, back). That leaves him with a motley crew of replacements which includes a quarterback convert (Greg Ward), a rookie (second-round pick J.J. Arcega-Whiteside), and a perennial practice squad player (Robert Davis).
Who does Wentz have left to count on then besides breakout running back Miles Sanders? (More on him in a minute.) One answer could be tight end Dallas Goedert. Goedert caught the opening touchdown against the Cowboys on the way to a career-best nine-catch, 91-yard performance. The second-year player has proved an explosive complement to Ertz and has more receiving yards (542) than any Eagles wide receiver this season.
The team is also high on Ward and his ability to potentially outrun the Giants secondary on longer throws. He continues to develop each week; a key 38-yard catch against the Cowboys highlighting a career-best 71-yard game last Sunday. Stretching the field is important against a defense that allows 7.65 yards per pass play, fourth-worst in the NFL.
Managing it all is Wentz, whose calm demeanor under center the past month has finally put the ghost of Foles to rest. After two years of uncertainty, he has retained control while limiting turnovers (just one lost fumble since the first half of the last Giants game). Can he continue playing clean while turning his second-rate supporting cast into superstars?
2. Miles Sanders vs. Saquon Barkley
One boost for the Eagles is the likely return of running back Jordan Howard, out for the past two months with a shoulder injury. But his absence has allowed for the emergence of Sanders, a 2019 second-round pick who has exploded as the featured player in this Eagles offense. The past two weeks have Sanders peaking to the tune of 201 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry and two touchdowns. The former Penn State star also had the final breakout play to ice the game against the Cowboys last week and has become the go-to option in crunch time.
Now, Sanders faces a full-on, one-on-one matchup with the man he replaced at Penn State: Saquon Barkley. Both men are fully healthy and on top of their game, evidenced by Barkley’s explosive, career-best 189-yard rushing raid against the Redskins last week.
The two young men have the utmost respect for each other, swapping jerseys after the Eagles’ win earlier this month when Sanders outgained Barkley 74-67. His ability to do it again will make the difference if this team wants to avoid the upset.
Of course, the Eagles' defense will also need to have something to say about it, doing a great job this month of stopping running backs dead in their tracks. Last week, they held Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on the ground, as the Eagles allowed just 54 yards rushing overall, their best performance since the season opener.
How do they stop Barkley?
"Just population to the football," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins told Penn Live. "He's, to me, the best runner in football, and there really are no 1-on-1s. It's just everybody get to the ball. If he makes somebody else miss, then have another hat right on him."
If Barkley gets contained once again, the Eagles win. It’s that simple.
3. Special teams
Many thought Eagles kicker Jake Elliott had an outside shot at the Pro Bowl. In a down season for the position, he’d made 19 of his first 21 kicks and missed only two extra points heading into the Cowboys game last week. But that’s when Elliott, one of the team’s strongest assets, had some uncharacteristic stumbles. A player who cemented his status with this team based on a 61-yard bomb against the Giants two years ago missed two field goals from 50+. Hitting just one of them would have salted away the game and kept the Cowboys from mounting a furious 4th-quarter comeback that ultimately fell short.
All four of Elliott’s missed kicks now have come this month. To be fair, they’re all from 47 yards or longer. But considering the missing offensive pieces, a little extra from Elliott could be crucial in making sure the Eagles make every drive count.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants have struggled on special teams themselves. Aldrick Rosas has missed three of his last six field goal attempts, hitting from no further out than 45 yards this year. He’s just 11-for-16 overall and has missed four extra points in a dismal year for the Giants offensively.
Both kickers will have to navigate rainy weather with showers expected by the second half of Sunday’s contest. And with an easterly wind expected to pick up with it, who navigates that challenge successfully could make the difference in two teams who went to overtime three weeks ago.
The Giants appeared to hit another gear with Daniel Jones back under center last week. Playing at home will add some wind to their sails as the pressure is clearly on a wounded Eagles team to get the job done.
How you feel about this game, then, likely depends on where you are with Carson Wentz. It’s clear over the past month he’s started to recreate a narrative that, for most of the past two years, has been defined by his inability to win in the clutch. The Giants’ win last time served as his first fourth-quarter comeback win in the NFL; he earned a second straight against the Redskins the following week.
Wentz is now one win from rewriting that story for good. He knows how damaging a loss here would be. The Eagles may be saddled by injuries, but they’ll find a way to get the job done in perhaps Wentz’s finest month at quarterback (and, not to be outdone, one of Doug Pederson’s better stretches as a head coach).
Prediction: Eagles 20, Giants 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.