By Matt Szczypiorski, Sports Talk Philly Contributing Writer
Eagles fans enter this week with quite the moral conundrum: rooting for the Eagles to win now, or rooting for the Eagles to get a better draft pick. It seems that the fans are pretty 50-50 about this.
With that being said, it had to have felt good to watch the Eagles win last week against the top seed in the NFC at the time. If nothing else, the Eagles were able to improve their record in “Enjoyable NFL football games to watch,” to a measly 1-12.
Fans and analysts alike saw something from the Birds they hadn’t seen in weeks: life. Did the extra pep in the players’ step have everything to do with the quarterback change? Hard to say, but the week 14 Eagles looked a heck of a lot different than the Eagles of the previous 13 weeks.
The Eagles travel to the desert this weekend for a tilt with yet another playoff contender in the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona has had an up-and-down year, and they are currently trending downwards at the wrong time.
With the Eagles suddenly soaring high after their big win against one of the NFC’s elite, this game could have the makings for yet another Birds upset.
Eagles Offense vs. Cardinals Defense
I was impressed by Jalen Hurts last week. His passing stats don’t jump off the page, and he was by no means amazing or even good for that matter, but he showed a lot of things teams look for in a rookie making his first NFL start.
Hurts was poised in the pocket, showed remarkable accuracy from within the pocket as well as on the run, and flashed his incredible instinctual ability to feel the pressure and escape. Even with a makeshift offensive line, Hurts was not sacked once last week.
Factoring in that this was Hurts’ first career NFL start, and it was against the second best defense in the entire league, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Jalen Hurts. There is hope that he will only get better with gained experience and in more favorable matchups, though the Cardinals boast an above average defense.
I wouldn’t count out the possibility that Hurts wasn't satisfied with his performance either. Sure he played well, but I'm sure he thinks about that missed deep ball to Reagor in the first quarter more than he thinks about his touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery (his best throw of the game, in my opinion).
Remember that this is the same guy that felt he had to get a full workout in immediately after playing an entire game at Oklahoma. Not just any game, a blowout win over Big 12 rival Texas Tech.
The reasoning? He wasn’t fully satisfied with how he played, even though he threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns while adding 70 rushing yards and a score on the ground too.
Hurts is always hungry for more. You cannot teach those character traits. He has the mind and will of an elite NFL quarterback. Now he just has to prove he has the ability of an elite NFL quarterback too.
As for the rest of the Eagles offense, Miles Sanders had yet another coming out party last Sunday. Fans and fantasy owners alike can only hope that Doug Pederson actually acknowledged his invitation to this one.
Sanders and Hurts proved to be a dynamic duo, combining for over 220 yards rushing. Sanders had two rushing touchdowns and was extremely effective on just about every carry he had, even though he only had 14 rushes.
Against a Cardinals defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league in rush defense, hopefully the Eagles continue to game plan for the run to be a bigger part of the offense. Knowing how Doug Pederson has called games this season, however, leads me to believe that won’t be the case.
There have been 11 runs of 70+ yards in the NFL this season. Miles Sanders has three of them. Use your best weapon, Doug.
The Eagles receivers continue to be an enigma. Of Hurts’ 17 completions last Sunday, just six of them went to wide receivers. One of those six went to Quez Watkins, none of them went to Travis Fulgham. The seldom used Watkins also received more snaps than Fulgham last Sunday.
Let us not forget that Fulgham led the National Football League in receiving from weeks four through seven. I’ll give you a minute to comprehend the incompetence.
Matt Pryor is back in the starting lineup, as he will take over at right tackle for the injured Jack Driscoll. Here’s to hoping that Hurts will fully stretch his legs pregame so that he doesn’t pull a hammy with all the running around he’ll be doing.
The Cardinals defense is just outside the top ten in overall defense. They hover around average-to-below-average in rush defense, while ranking 11th in pass defense.
Their best player on defense is safety Budda Baker, who burst onto the scene last year and has continued to play well this season. He is elite against the run and plays fairly well against the pass as well. He is easily one of the most underrated players in the league.
Local product Haason Riddick out of Temple had a coming out party last week against the Giants. Riddick recorded five sacks and three forced fumbles in one game, an absurd performance that I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved.
The plan for the Eagles offense this week should be similar to last week. Focus on running the ball with Sanders and Hurts, throw the ball around 30 times and keep quick passes the focal point of the passing attack. If Hurts throws the ball 35 times or more on Sunday, the Eagles are in trouble.
Eagles Defense vs. Cardinals Offense
The Eagles defense played one of their best games of the season last Sunday against New Orleans. The Birds didn’t allow a single first half point and sacked Taysom Hill five times throughout the game.
Was part of their dominance attributed to Hill’s ineptitude? Probably, yeah, but that doesn’t take anything away from a defense that has been playing well the last few weeks.
Defensive end Josh Sweat had the best game of his NFL career on Sunday evening, registering two huge sacks and a forced fumble that led to an Eagles touchdown. On this sack, Sweat bullied his way past one of the best left tackles in the game. He did the same on his strip sack later in the game.
Still can't get over this play from Sweat on Armstead, one of the best in the business. Solid lean and one-arm stab, immediately followed by a strong punch and drive with the other arm puts Terron on skates.— Thomas R. Petersen 🦅 (@thomasrp93) December 14, 2020
His development is phenomenal, and he only just turned 23.#Eagles pic.twitter.com/NRpdmQ7amf
Meanwhile, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave continued his hot streak by adding two more sacks to his total last Sunday. The Eagles biggest addition via free agency had been considered a bust through a majority of the season, but his play has really picked up the last three weeks.
The Eagles defensive line has been the only elite constant of the team throughout the season, as they rank second in sacks per game.
The concern, especially this week, is the Eagles secondary. Star cornerback Darius Slay has not played particularly well since the Seattle game, and has been battling a different injury each week all the while. This week, he is listed as questionable with a concussion suffered in last week’s game.
If he is unable to go, the Eagles defense will be in an awful spot. This is especially true with Avonte Maddox missing Sunday’s game, along with the rest of the regular season, due to a knee injury.
Well, and the fact that the Cardinals have the best all-around receiver in football. DeAndre Hopkins is fifth in the league in receiving yards and has had a plethora of 100-yard games. He also had this ridiculous catch that won the Cardinals a game earlier in the season.
I would commit heinous crimes to have a receiver that could do something like that on the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has cooled off a considerable amount since his hot start to the season. With that being said, Murray has the incredible talent of being able to beat you with his arm just as well as his legs.
Murray, unlike other popular dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, often will only run if it is absolutely necessary. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury does not send Murray on many designed runs, making Murray’s effectiveness running the football all the more impressive.
Considering how poorly the Eagles defense did in trying to contain the aforementioned Jackson earlier in the season, expect Murray to have an impact in the ground game.
The Cardinals offense has struggled as a whole since their miraculous victory against Buffalo a few weeks ago. An offense that managed to score 30 points or more for five straight games in the middle of the season has yet to reach that threshold in their four games since.
This culminated in their uninspiring offensive effort against the Giants, as they settled for four field goals in their unimpressive 26-7 win in East Rutherford last Sunday. With the Cardinals offense trending downward and the Eagles defense beginning to trend upward, I’m interested to see if those trends will continue on Sunday afternoon.
The Eagles have done something that I promised I wouldn’t allow them to do: give me optimism. I’m sorry, but it’s just natural after beating the top team in the NFC.
The Birds are riding high after their first win in what has felt like six years. They have a new found energy with Jalen Hurts in at quarterback. Combine all that with the Cardinals struggling over the past month, and the recipe for a second consecutive Eagles win is there.
And that’s exactly why I think the Eagles are going to lose.
Having immersed myself in Philadelphia sports for as long as I can remember, this is exactly the type of game the Eagles, or any Philly team for that matter, loses. As soon as you gain any semblance of expectations or hope, Philadelphia sports is there to knock you back down a few pegs. It’s just how the universe remains balanced.
The game is close throughout, but remains a defensive struggle as well. The Cardinals score in the waning moments of the game on a touchdown from the ghost of Philadelphia villains past who just will not die: Larry Fitzgerald. The 2008 NFC Championship still haunts me. 10-year old me is still not over it.
Seriously, how did the Eagles crawl all the way back from a 24-6 deficit to take the lead on the luckiest deep shot I’ve ever seen from Donovan McNabb to DeSean Jackson, and then still lose! When I say endless pain and suffering, I mean endless. I’ll never get over it.
Cardinals win, 20-17.
Time: 4:05 p.m.
Radio: 94.1 FM WIP
Online: NFL Gamepass