Week 9 of the regular season marks the NFL’s halfway point. The Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants will be playing the eighth game of their respective 16-game schedules this Sunday with both teams already having their bye. It feels a little early for a playoff atmosphere to exist within any of the NFL’s 32 franchises.
But for the Eagles? It certainly should.
Playing in the NFC East, the only division in football has all four teams above .500, gives Sunday a degree of added importance for Eagles. Check out the next four games for this upstart team after coming to visit the Giants in the Meadowlands — vs. Atlanta, at Seattle, vs. Green Bay, at Cincinnati. Including the Falcons’ win on Thursday night to start the Week 9 slate, these four teams’ combined record currently stands at 17-12-2.
Already two games behind the Cowboys in the division following last Sunday’s overtime loss in Dallas, Philadelphia can hardly afford any missteps. A loss Sunday would drop the Eagles to 0-3 in divisional play and put them in a tough position when it comes to potential tiebreakers.
New York on the other hand, appears to have a much easier upcoming schedule. The Giants’ next four games are home against Cincinnati and Chicago with road games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh. These teams’ combined record is just 9-21-1, mainly due to the Browns (0-8) and Bears (2-6).
So it’s fair to say that New York has a far easier upcoming road, at least on paper, and has a veteran quarterback in Eli Manning who knows how to get the job done in crunch time. Philadelphia is a team that isn’t supposed to be in the playoff discussion, as many considered the Eagles in rebuilding mode after trading former starting quarterback Sam Bradford to open the door for No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz. They may have overachieved some, but they also enter this game just 1-3 in their last four games.
So Can Wentz and company turn things around on the road in a key divisional matchup? Or will the Giants be the one entering unexpected territory at 5-3? Add in the juice of a divisional rivalry and it’s clear this game should be one of the most exciting you’ll see all weekend.
Series History: 168 meetings (Giants lead 85-81-2)
Philadelphia at New York
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: New York Giants -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Eagles’ receivers get it together?
It’s been a difficult week for Philadelphia’s young receiving corps. Second-year player Nelson Agholor, a first-round draft pick who has underperformed, was forced to apologize after saying his drops against the Cowboys were “nothing.” Agholor, who has failed to crack 50 receiving yards in a game since Week 1, should be the team’s No. 2 target but he doesn’t even have as many catches as running back Darren Sproles.
Then, there’s the not-so-small matter of Josh Huff, who has dazzled on special teams this season but was hardly dazzling after getting stopped on the Walt Whitman Bridge for speeding. Inside the car was a handgun without a permit along with marijuana, both of which caused an arrest and criminal charges made worse by Huff’s comments afterward.
"I'm a professional athlete,” he said to reporters. “What professional athlete don't have a gun? I have a wife and I have a son at home. My job is to protect them at all costs.”
While eventually apologizing, both to his team and to Eagles fans Huff was cut on Thursday as first-year head coach Doug Pederson tried to restore order. But Huff is a loss and the other receivers, including preseason trade acquisition Dorial Green-Beckham, are going to have to pick up the pace in his absence.
2. Which Odell Beckham Jr. will show up?
Much has been written about the difficulties for Beckham this year, on and off the field as he tries to grapple with NFL superstar status. But keep in mind that the three best games of his season have come in front of the home crowd, a safe space where the young receiver tends to draw energy from the fan base.
Take a quick look at the Home vs. Road statistics (I’ve taken the London game versus the Rams out of the equation).
Home (3 games): 23 receptions, 429 yards, 2 TD
Road (3 games): 12 receptions, 152 yards, TD
The success of Beckham opens the field up for Eli Manning, developing receiver Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz. When focused, Beckham is clearly the best player on the field in most situations and the bye week helped heal a hip injury suffered against the Ravens last month.
The Eagles’ secondary, by comparison has been better thanks to offseason additions Rodney McLeod and Leodis McKelvin. But defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have no answer if Beckham can rise to the occasion at home once again.
3. When will Pederson open up the playbook for Wentz?
Carson Wentz isn’t the reason the Eagles have gone 1-3 after a 3-0 start. However – and this is a very important distinction — he hasn’t exactly moved the needle, either. The rookie hasn’t topped 300 passing yards since the surprise victory versus the Steelers in Week 3, throwing a mediocre four touchdowns and three interceptions over the last four games.
What’s interesting is that the majority of Wentz’s passes are thrown within 10 yards. Perhaps it’s first-year head coach Doug Pederson’s fault. Coming from a dink-and-dunk offense in Kansas City where quarterback Alex Smith was a game manager, the Chiefs’ former offensive coordinator has experience playing it safe.
The difference now? Ryan Mathews is not Jamaal Charles, a top-tier running back that can drive the offense (when healthy) and Wentz has far more upside if given a chance to throw down the field. It seems even during pressure situations in the game there’s a leash thrown on Wentz and a limit to how quickly the Eagles can score.
So is it the lack of receiver depth keeping Pederson from trying the big play? Is he hesitant to open up the playbook? Either way, at some point he is going to need to let Wentz loose. When that happens, we’ll know how much the rookie has really progressed after a month of some adversity as the starter.
What we’ve learned the last few weeks is while the Eagles are better than expected they’re still a step behind where they need to be. Only 1-3 on the road this season, that’s typically where young players struggle to perform and that should make the difference Sunday with two teams that are otherwise evenly matched.
Prediction: Giants 20, Eagles 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Carson Wentz photo courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)