It’s not how you start in the NFL, it’s how you finish.
Remember when the Redskins were 0-2? When the Eagles were 3-0? Both records seem like distant memories as the longtime NFC East rivals are set to meet again Sunday in Philadelphia. The Eagles, 1-5 in their last six games, have seen their early momentum evaporate. At 5-7, they’ll likely need to win out for any chance at the playoffs; their focus already transitioning to player evaluation for 2017.
The Redskins, by comparison are 6-3-1 since that rough start, giving them a shot at wild card berth. But two straight losses, both on the road, have worsened their position heading into this game. The Eagles are 4-1 at home with a plus-56 scoring differential while holding opponents to just 13 points per game at Lincoln Financial Field. Stung after an awful performance last Sunday at Cincinnati, head coach Doug Pederson hopes to have his team fired up and playing for pride.
Can Kirk Cousins lead Washington back toward the right side of the playoff picture? Or will this weekend be the one Carson Wentz breaks out of his funk?
Series History: Redskins lead 85-73-5, won 27-20 in Week 6.
Washington at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Redskins -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Carson Wentz Turn It Around?
Wentz, starting the year as one of the sport’s more promising rookies, landed with a thud last Sunday at Cincinnati. He’s thrown six interceptions in the last three games, all losses while suffering through breakdowns on the offensive line. Sacked seven times, he’s been under constant pressure while playing through injuries to some of his favorite weapons. Jordan Matthews, Ryan Mathews, and Nelson Agholor are just some of the offensive players that have missed missing time during this stretch. Matthews (ankle), Mathews (knee) and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (oblique) are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.
One other stat in Wentz’s defense: the team has been playing from behind, forcing him to throw the ball more. He had 60 pass attempts against the Bengals, easily the most in this season, but he also has made some flat-out poor decisions on this throws and should be held accountable for them.
Throwing interceptions is nothing new for a rookie quarterback. Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning led the league with 28 in his first season back in 1998. The difference now is the NFL of 2016 doesn’t come with as much patience. Wentz’ leadership in the locker room, as well as the reputation he’s building, will fall flat if he can’t start getting this funk turned around.
“How well he continues to lead this team down the stretch,” Pederson told NJ.com this week when asked what he’s expecting from Wentz the final four games. “There’s obviously tough times right now. See how he manages that, see how he rallies from a quarterback leadership standpoint.”
2. Will The Redskins “D” Stop The Bleeding?
You have to go all the way back to October, a 16-10 win against the Ravens, to find the last time Washington allowed fewer than 20 points in game. The Redskins’ defense ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in total (369.6 ypg, tied for 23rd), scoring (24.6 pgg, 20th), rushing (114.3 ypg, 22nd), and passing (255.3 ypg, 19th) defense, as well as yards per play (5.8, 23rd).
Last week, the ‘Skins let a QB slumping just like Wentz look unstoppable. Carson Palmer, having a down year, threw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. David Johnson, one of the top rushers in the league, averaged 4.7 yards per carry, while Larry Fitzgerald recorded 10 catches.
The Eagles don’t have quite the same weapons, particularly at receiver, but that hasn’t stopped other opponents from exploiting Washington’s shoddy defense. The Redskins are last in the league on third down, allowing opponents to convert nearly half (48 percent) of their chances. Philadelphia’s offense has been successful on 35.8 percent of its third down opportunities, just 26th in the league, but went 8-for-17 (47 percent) in last week’s loss to Cincinnati. Washington will need to cut that down if it wants to get back into the win column on Sunday.
3. Which Team Can Run The Football Better?
Both backfields have dealt with injuries this season, leading to unexpected starters. Rookie Rob Kelley has handled the bulk of the work for Washington after Matt Jones was hit by various injuries. Kelley’s early starts were promising, peaking with 137 rushing yards against the Packers a few weeks ago, but he has fallen flat recently. A total of 100 yards on the ground in a two-game span won’t get it done and puts more pressure on a passing game that may still be missing its top target, tight end Jordan Reed, who remains questionable for Sunday.
Philadelphia hopes to get Mathews back from a knee injury, but he too is considered questionable. Wendell Smallwood, the team’s fifth-round pick, has been filling in, but he’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry over the last three games. Darren Sproles has made his share of plays, but he’s more of a receiver out of the backfield and is effective as change-of-pace ball carrier rather than a workhorse.
Despite the injuries, the Eagles and the Redskins rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in rushing offense. Whichever team is more productive on the ground Sunday will likely be in a better position to win.
Washington enters this game having dropped it last two games. Philadelphia has been a better team at home, but has lost three in a row and five of six overall. The Redskins have been the more consistent team on the whole and has done a good job beating teams they are supposed to beat. Four of Washington’s five losses have come against teams currently leading or tied for first in their division. Expect that trend to continue on Sunday.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Eagles 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.