Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has seen his playoff hopes vanish
Just a month ago, it looked like the 2018 Washington Redskins, not the Philadelphia Eagles, would be battling for a playoff spot in their Week 17 NFL regular season finale. But a gruesome, season-ending leg injury to quarterback Alex Smith changed the narrative for a team that led the NFC East for much of the year.
Instead, the Redskins were forced to backup Colt McCoy and then started plucking quarterbacks off the street (Mark Sanchez, Josh Johnson) once McCoy went down with his own leg injury. While Johnson has put forth a yeoman’s effort, keeping the team in the game against the Tennessee Titans last week, the 'Skins are 1-5 since Smith went down, plummeting right out of playoff contention.
Compare that to the Eagles, experiencing a similar injury problem but rallying through the generosity of old Saint Nick. Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, that is, who only threw for a franchise record 471 yards in a 32-30 comeback victory over the Houston Texans last week. The backup quarterback is working his magic again since Carson Wentz got sidelined with a fractured vertebra, putting the Eagles’ playoff hopes in doubt. Instead, two straight upsets over teams that could be in the top two seeds of their respective conferences (Texans, Rams) have them on the verge of postseason play.
The Eagles still need help on Sunday; they must win against the Redskins and hope the Vikings lose to the Bears. But the Bears, the number three seed in the NFC can still move up and have something to play for. An opportunity for the Eagles to defend their Super Bowl title, once unthinkable with them at 4-6 and again just a few weeks ago at 6-7, suddenly appears within reach.
Can the Redskins put up any type of reasonable effort to block them?
Philadelphia at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -7
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Nick Foles charm the Eagles offense a third time?
Not enough nice things can be said about Foles’ return to the Eagles' offense. He’s brought with him an aggression, a toughness and a winning mentality that’s spread like wildfire throughout the organization. In the first 13 games of the season under Wentz, the Eagles scored 30+ points just once, a 34-13 rout of the Giants.
In the last two games? Foles has led them to 30+ no problem, including a dramatic last drive for a field goal against the Texans where he came back from a nasty hit. It’s the first time they’ve gone back-to-back like that offensively since scoring 79 points in their vintage NFC Championship and Super Bowl-winning performance. Foles’ play last weekend even inspired the team they defeated, the Patriots, to send a thank you for a Texans defeat that put them back in contention for the AFC’s number two seed.
The NFC Offensive Player of the Week now looks for the trifecta this weekend against the Redskins. What’s been the key for him? Simple: he’s getting rid of the football. Not only was that an issue for Wentz the past few weeks, which we now know he was nursing an injury, Foles’ quick release has allowed the offensive line to step up. Just one sack in the last two games is their best stretch in what has otherwise been an inconsistent season.
2: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Redskins have kept themselves in games this season by doing the little things right. One of them is an above-average defense specializing in turning the ball over: their 25 takeaways ranks tied for sixth in the NFL and created a plus-seven turnover margin.
It’s their failure to force those takeaways against the Titans that helped end the Redskins’ playoff hopes. While quarterback Josh Johnson coughed the ball up late, throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions the defense was also unable to capitalize after knocking Titans’ starting quarterback Marcus Mariota out of the game. Backup Blaine Gabbert wound up 7-for-11, throwing for 101 yards and a touchdown that kept the Redskins from pulling the upset.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have not been so good at taking care of the football. Foles’ ascension to starter also comes with some aggression that will occasionally lead to mistakes; he’s thrown interceptions in three of four starts this year. And the Eagles’ minus-six turnover margin has come packed with crucial mistakes at the worst possible times throughout the year. The difference in the last two weeks is that they haven’t let those slip-ups beat them... but they’ve been there.
Against the Rams, it was a fourth-quarter Foles interception that sparked a near-comeback from a 30-13 deficit. Last week? A fumble by rookie running back Josh Adams sparked a Texans 14-point, fourth-quarter surge, briefly giving them the lead when simply taking care of the football would have iced the game.
The Eagles can’t keep making these mistakes and survive. If the Redskins' D shows up feisty, they have a chance.
3. Youth vs. experience
The major Eagles’ defensive lapse in the team’s last meeting this season, perhaps the lone Redskins’ offensive highlight was Adrian Peterson’s 90-yard touchdown run. Peterson has had an incredible season at 33 years old, becoming just the 13th player after age 30 to rush for over 1,000 yards. Last week, he passed Eric Dickerson for eighth on the all-time rushing list and put the exclamation point on what’s been a comeback year.
Contrast that with the Eagles' rushing attack or lack thereof throughout much of the year. Adams, an undrafted rookie free agent, is averaging just 1.9 yards per carry as the lead back over the past two games, gaining just 49 yards while coughing up that costly fumble against the Texans.
But it’s another aging running back with Hall of Fame credentials that may upstage both these men on Sunday. Darren Sproles has been a hidden gem these past few weeks since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of the year. The 35-year-old Eagle has two key receiving touchdowns over the last three weeks to go along with 64 rushing yards on 13 carries. It’s a total that may not sound like much but having a change-of-pace back capable of gaining yards off screens is a role the Eagles' offense had badly missed. It’s also got Sproles reconsidering retirement after saying repeatedly 2018 would be his last year.
Will Sproles be the lead back Sunday? Absolutely not. But if an Eagles running back makes a game-changing play, he’s likely to be the one responsible.
Josh Johnson, to his credit, did play extremely well against the Titans. But a quarterback who was the top pick of the AAFL (think new spring football league) earlier this fall played like a minor leaguer down the stretch. It was his crucial mistakes, despite an outstanding game, that killed what playoff chances his team had left.
He’ll certainly give a better effort Sunday than Mark Sanchez did when the Eagles walloped the Redskins in their first meeting. But Washington, on their heels and reeling from the loss of Alex Smith, now have little to play for. The visiting Eagles have the more talented team and a potential playoff spot gifted and waiting for them.
It’s hard to see how this game doesn’t turn into a rout.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Redskins 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.