By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA, Pa., (CBS)—Who knew this was going to happen? Not many. Back in July, there were some that had suspicions the Eagles could be a 7- or 8-win team, but no one was predicting playoffs for a team that needed time to coalesce and heal in recovering from a feckless 4-12 season last year.
But here we are in December, with five meaningful games ahead: Three winnable home games in visiting Arizona this week, followed by Detroit on Dec. 8, a visit to the hapless Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 15, before a return to Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 22 against the Chicago Bears and closing out the year at Dallas on Dec. 29.
All five games are actually winnable.
It’s a team that’s tangibly improved during the most important time of the season. And the reasons are an improved defense, which was once ranked No. 32 in the NFL in points allowed, and the emergence of Nick Foles as the starting quarterback.
As recent as a month ago, no one could have foreseen what’s unfolded since Dallas stepped on the Eagles, 17-3, on Oct. 20. Since then, Foles has gone 3-0 as a starter, including wins over Oakland, Green Bay and Washington. The Eagles defense hasn’t yielded more than 21 points since they were shellacked in Denver’s 52-point outburst Sept. 29.
A key has been the way the Eagles have played defense on third down. They are allowing opponents to convert first downs at 41-percent of the time, which is 25th in the NFL (allowing first downs on 68 out of 166 plays). Over the last month, however, the Eagles have been stopping opponents 39.5-percent (34 of 86) on third downs, which includes losses to the Giants (8 of 19 third-down conversions) and Dallas (converted 5 of 16 third downs).
Compare that to the first six games of the season, when the Eagles were allowing opponents to convert on third downs 42.5-percent of the time (34-for-80), and the difference is obvious.
In the red zone, opponents are scoring touchdowns 47.2-percent of the time, which is 7th in the NFL, down considerably from 19th last year and 29th in 2011.
Getting this defense together was “just a matter of patience and learning,” said Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis after the Eagles’ 24-16 victory over Washington. “We knew what we could do with the personnel we had. They had to get used to our system and what we were teaching them and buy in—and I would say they’re buying in.”
Now add what Foles has done, again especially on third down. He’s completed 27 of 44 passes on third downs, for 320 yards and 7.27 yards per completion. Foles has made immeasurable improvement in his pre-snap reads in picking up blitzes and allocating protection schemes.
“I think Nick sees extremely well,” Eagles’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “We’ve talked about that in here before. He understands what the defense is going to do going into the game, and he’s able to come back and talk about where the pressure came, where he needs to go with the football. So I think he’s very aware of what a defense can and will do to him. But I think that gets better with time, and I anticipate he’ll even be better this week.”
It’s why it seems the Eagles are destined for the playoffs in Chip Kelly’s first season. And it appears where other teams are faltering and losing valuable pieces, like Dallas defensive hub linebacker Sean Lee, Eagles like Nate Allen, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are growing stronger.
After last year’s 4-12 debacle, consider whatever happens over these next five games as the Eagles playing with house money. Kelly and his staff have made marked progress in their first year revamping this team and have them in the hunt for a playoff berth in December.
Think about it. The last meaningful game the Eagles, under Andy Reid, played in December came on a Tuesday night, Dec. 28, 2010 against the famous Joe Webb and the Minnesota Vikings. Remember what happened in that game?
Given another chance in December, the feeling here is this version of the Eagles won’t squander the opportunity and make the same mistakes that team did.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.