Some people will tell you that the Eagles Sunday matchup against the Cardinals isn’t important, but that statement is only half the truth. If the Eagles lose to the Cardinals, they still have a good chance to win the division by beating the Redskins and Giants in the last two weeks of the season. However, if the Eagles beat the Cardinals, they may not have to worry about the outcome of their week 17 matchup against the Giants, their only road game left in the regular season. The Cardinals have been given an advantage from the NFL because the game was flexed into primetime. The two teams were supposed to play at 1:00 ET, 10:00 in Arizona, before the Patriots game, but, after the Eagles beat New England, they were flexed to the 8:30 ET slot – 5:30 in Arizona. Thanks a lot, NFL, for taking that advantage away. Nonetheless, the Eagles need to be tested by the best before their final two-game stretch against division rivals. Which Eagles players need to have big performances?
*Sam Bradford: Sam Bradford’s contract is over at the end of the season, and Chip Kelly, no matter how much he tries to deny it, is technically the GM. What will Kelly do? Is Bradford worth a franchise tag or contract extension? Bradford has three weeks left in the regular season to make an argument for the extension, and a decision will have to be made soon. Right now, the franchise tag seems destined for his future, but is Bradford the quarterback who is going to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl at some point? Is Kelly willing to risk heading into next year’s season with his fourth starting quarterback in four years? Bradford has improved during the season, but have we seen the ceiling or floor of his production? Most Eagles fans seem to hope that someone better is out there, but there’s slim pickings at the quarterback position these days. Is Colin Kaepernick a better option? Will Bradford shine against a solid Cardinals defense and prove he’s worth keeping? He threw the deep ball well last week. Will he be given the opportunity again this week? Bradford has a lot to prove over these next three weeks.
*Darren Sproles: The Eagles’ backfield is finally evolving into the triple-threat attack Chip Kelly wanted since trading away LeSean McCoy. Sure. the media makes money by talking about how DeMarco Murray is losing rushing attempts, but, in my opinion, the triple-threat attack is what Kelly has been working towards since he started coaching in Philadelphia. Therefore, arguing about or discussing a running back controversy is a waste of space and time. What is worth discussing, however, is that, throughout the more equal distribution used recently, Sproles has been benefitting more than any other running back. He has led the team in rushing yards in both of the past two games, and he has the team’s only rushing touchdown since Ryan Matthews scored one in week 10.
*Fletcher Cox: If there’s one player on the Eagles team who deserves to be in the Pro Bowl, Cox is the first person who comes to mind. This guy is the real deal, and, even though he is a defensive lineman, he has literally won games for the team this season. After the Bills game, the always colorfully outspoken Rex Ryan, the son of ex-Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, said, “I was laughing when I saw him being compared to Jerome Brown, but I’m not laughing now,” after Cox recorded a team-high seven solo tackles and the team’s only sack. For the year, his 6.5 sacks are tied for the lead on the team with Brandon Graham, and he is tied for the lead in forced fumbles, too. He is ranked second on the team in fumbles recovered. Cox will need to put constant pressure on Carson Palmer and stop Cardinals rookie running back David Johnson from getting past the Eagles defensive line. Cox is the leader of the defensive line.
*Malcolm Jenkins: Jenkins is the leader of the secondary, and the defensive backfield’s ability to create turnovers and limit receivers have been crucial to winning this season. His 99-yard interception return off Tom Brady two weeks ago broke a 14-14 tie and sparked the Eagles towards two more unanswered touchdowns to give the Eagles a 35-14 lead. As a whole, the Eagles secondary has 9 of the Eagles 15 interceptions this season, and the Eagles rank fourth among all NFL teams in interceptions (Arizona ranks third with 16, though). Earlier in the season, the Eagles defense ranked first in the league in interceptions and had an interception in six of their first nine games. Then, they had a three-game stretch against the Dolphins, Buccaneers, and Lions – all losses – in which they didn’t finish with one. However, the team had two against the Patriots and one against the Bills – both wins – and are now 6-2 in games in which they have at least one interception.
*Nelson Agholor: It took Agholor 13 games into his rookie season, but he finally scored a touchdown. His end zone celebration, circling awkwardly around the end zone, during which he almost tripped himself, was both comical and a pleasure to watch after his 53-yard touchdown. Hopefully he exorcised the rookie jitters with that celebration, and he is ready to play like a pro now. The Eagles desperately need a wide receiver who can stretch the field vertically. Considering that Agholor came into the 13th game of his rookie season with 163 yards and zero touchdowns, last week was the closest he has come to a breakout performance. How will he follow up last week’s performance against an extremely tough Cardinals’ secondary?
*Eric Rowe: The Cardinals have three wide receivers who can punish a defense: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. Rowe will need to bring his “A” game because, after good performances against the Patriots and Bills, this game will tell a lot about how prepared he is to take the next step in his rookie career. He will not have a lot of extra assistance on Sunday Night Football against the three dangerous receivers. The Eagles second-round draft pick struggled against Calvin Johnson in his first real game action of the season, but he has improved since then. Byron Maxwell missed Wednesday’s practice with a back injury, but he was back at practice Thursday; however, Rowe will still be alone in coverage frequently. When the Eagles played the Cardinals in a 24-20 Cardinals win last season, Larry Fitzgerald finished the game with 160 yards and a touchdown, and John Brown had 119 yards and a touchdown. Fitzgerald’s longest catch was 80 yards, and Brown’s was 75. Michael Floyd has at least 100 yards receiving in four of his past five games. The Eagles secondary have their work cut out for them.
*Chip Kelly: Kelly saved his job when the Eagles beat the Patriots, and a two-game winning streak has quieted most critics. However, I still have a problem with Kelly’s misuse of time. To beat the Cardinals, Chip needs to manage the clock more effectively and keep the Cardinals offense off the field. Snapping the ball with 15 or more seconds on the play clock throughout the game – even when playing with a lead – will not keep the Cardinals offense warming up the bench, which is what they need to be doing if the Eagles want to win this game. Watching Kelly continue to use his up-tempo scheme when draining the clock is the better option is agonizingly frustrating, and that is the main reason I would still like the team to move on from Kelly at the end of the season. Hopefully his use of time management changes.