The Dream Team is having a nightmarish season in Philadelphia as defensive letdowns, injuries and an inability to come together as a cohesive unit rather than a collection of talent has left the Eagles with a 4-6 record through the first 10 games of the season. Andy Reid's on the hot seat in Philly and the banged up Michael Vick is no longer the great redemption story he was not too long ago. But winning cures all ills, and a big home win over the Patriots would make things a lot more enjoyable in Philadelphia. New England, on the other hand, is looking to continue to build momentum heading down the home stretch. There will be plenty of stars on the field for both teams on Sunday, but it will be the better TEAM that wins the game. Until the late afternoon kickoff, and while enjoying a few leftovers from yesterday's big dinner, relax and enjoy this holiday week Eagles Friday Six-Pack!
1. Continued and contained pressure - New England's pass rush has been getting the job done with more consistency over the last two weeks, combining for eight sacks in two games. That's the most productive two-game span of the season. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson -- the latter of which has seen increased playing time of late - have led the way. But the challenge up front continues this week. Mike Vick is listed as questionable. Whether Vick or Vince Young plays, both are athletic guys who can make plenty of plays with their feet. That means the pass rushers for the Patriots must have good rush lane integrity. Vick, especially, can turn a crease in the rush into a big play. New England's rushers do need to continue to put pressure on the passer, though, as it has had a very positive impact on the overall defense over the last couple weeks. Rushing smart can't equate to losing some impact in the rush or rushing with hesitation.
2. Match up with the real McCoy - LeSean McCoy is one of if not the best young running back in the NFL today. He makes plays all over the field, on both passes and runs. He can cut plays back across the field and turn them into long gains. Bill Belichick said McCoy is "unbelievably quick." That will put an onus on the entire New England front seven to be fundamentally sound in run reads and fits. It will also put some pressure on the best athletes on the New England defense to match McCoy's athleticism. Jerod Mayo is the best tackler and athlete in the linebacking corps. That means he needs to show his All-Pro talents in this matchup with a budding star ball carrier. If McCoy gets things rolling and hits some long runs on the ground it could be a long day for the Patriots defense. Solid pursuit, sound tackling and team defense will all be key. But at some point an individual might need to make a play to stop a potential big play the other way, and that guy might be Mayo.
3. Early to score... - It's no secret that the Patriots offense has not been getting off to a good start in the last month-plus. Five straight games without a first quarter touchdown is not something you'd expect from Tom Brady and the NFL's No. 2 ranked offense. Philly has the No. 12 defense in the NFL, with the 11th pass defense. The Patriots offense has struggled early against some pretty good defenses. Some people believe it has to do with Brady's health. Maybe it's just adjusting to what opposing defenses are throwing at them. Regardless, the offense needs to start putting points on the board early. The defense has done a more than admirable job of keeping opponents' scores down of late, but it may be too much to ask that of the banged up, undermanned unit each and every week. Most of the money players on the Patriots are on offense right now and they need to be putting points up on the board early in games. That would take the pressure off the defense and allow that group to play with a lead and would likely lead to even better results.
5. Special attention - Both teams in this week's game had a punt return for a big play last week from dangerous returners who'd been quiet to date this season. Julian Edelman had a 72-yard touchdown and seemed to have a little extra spark last week, maybe thanks to his playing time on defense. Whatever it was, he was once again the dynamic returner he proved himself to be last season. DeSean Jackson bounced back from being inactive for missing a meeting to have his best return of the year, a 51 yarder. Both guys can have a dramatic impact on the game. Edelman also had a big return against the Eagles in the preseason a couple years ago. Neither team has done much on kickoff returns this year - Philly's long is 33 yards while the Patriots is 37. So if there is going to be a big play in the kicking game in this one it could come on a punt. As Belichick himself said, Jackson is "extremely dangerous." Given that New England's coverage has been inconsistent at times - maybe due to the fact that many core special teamers are now seeing increased playing time on defense - they have a challenge to meet. Of course the Eagles may be saying the same thing about Edelman.
6. Offensive versatility - The defense has been hit by injuries for weeks in New England. Now the offense is starting to build up guys on the injury report. Chad Ochocinco missed practice on Friday with a hamstring injury. Deion Branch has been limited with a hip injury. Center Dan Connolly has a groin issue. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is still dealing with a back problem. But the biggest questions come at the receiver position. If Branch can't go, that opens up a lot of snaps for another option. Though Branch hasn't been that productive this year, he has been on the field more often than not. If Ochocinco can't play, dare I say it might actually be time for Taylor Price. Otherwise it could be another week where the focus is solely on Wes Welker and the tight ends. Given Philly's talent at cornerback, they could look to take away the NFL's leading receiver. That would put a lot of pressure on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Maybe the running game will pick up some slack. Maybe Danny Woodhead can make some plays out of the backfield. Maybe Price will actually be active, get on the field, line up properly and make some plays, something he's yet to really do in a meaningful NFL game in his year-plus in New England. Regardless, it looks like the offense will need to branch out a bit with the possibility that Branch and others could be out.
Clearly the Eagles are a very talented team. Gronkowski, Mayo and other key New England players proclaimed that much all week long. They have players that can make plays, something Belichick was quick to point out. "They have a lot of players that can really score from anywhere on the field. Their pass rush, strip sacks, things like that where if they knock the ball off you, they can scoop it up and run it back. Asante, Nnamdi, if you're sloppy around them, they'll make you pay for it." So despite their record, they are not to be taken lightly. But two major factors have me siding with the road Patriots. First, Vince Young is likely to play. I just can't find myself picking a Young-led team to beat a Brady-led team at this point. Young looked terrible for most of the game last week. Generally quarterbacks who play bad football for most of the game don't win, unless their name is Tim Tebow. Second, the Eagles run a strange Wide 9 defenses that's put together by a defensive coordinator who had been the Philly offensive line coach for more than a decade. All talent aside, I find it hard to believe that Brady and Belichick won't find ways to exploit both the scheme and its inexperienced coordinator. I don't think this road game will be easy and won't be surprised if Philly makes a few big plays to get the win. But all that said I'm going with New England to beat the Eagles 30-24.