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December 20, 2017

Eagles vs. Raiders: Five matchups to watch

Heading into Week 16, the Philadelphia Eagles can clinch home-field advantage before they even take the field Monday night against the Oakland Raiders. If the Minnesota Vikings lose on Saturday in Green Bay, then the Eagles won't have to travel until/if they reach the Super Bowl.

On Tuesday, the Packers placed star quarterback Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve, and the betting line quickly jumped to nine points in favor of the Vikings. With a Minnesota win likely, the Eagles are probably going to have to try to clinch home field the old fashioned way, with a win over the Raiders.

Here are five matchups to watch.

1) RT Lane Johnson and the Eagles' OL vs. Khalil Mack

In early November, the Eagles faced perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL in Von Miller and had an outstanding game plan for him. On Monday, Lane Johnson will face his second-toughest test of the season in Khalil Mack.

Mack was the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he had 73 tackles, 11 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and a pick-six. This season, he has 68 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. He has at least one sack in each of his last five games. 

"Khalil is an elite pass-rusher," said Frank Reich. "I probably look at Von as, he's certainly been around a few years longer, earned a few more stripes. But I've coached against Khalil a few times. I have a lot of respect for him.

"They move him around more now than they have the last time that I coached against him. You got to be prepared for that. You got to be able to adjust and know where he's going to be. Certainly, as of late, their pressure on the quarterback has increased greatly over the last few games."

Oddly, the Broncos didn't try to move Miller around to test Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Instead, they left him opposite Johnson all game, and Johnson shut him down. The Eagles will always have to know where No. 52 is.

2) The Eagles' run defense vs. 'Beast Mode'

Marshawn Lynch may be 31 years old, but he can still dish out punishment to opposing defenders. For example, look at what he did to 305-pound, three-time Pro Bowl selection Jurrell Casey earlier this season.

On the season, Lynch has 163 carries for 695 yards (4.3 YPC) and 7 TDs. All season long, with the exception of one shaky performance against Todd Gurley and the Los Angeles Rams, the Eagles have done an outstanding job on opposing running backs. Let's go ahead and update their stats vs. opposing running backs.

 Opposing RBsRushes Yards YPC TD 
 Redskins13 34 2.6 
 Chiefs13 81 6.2 
 Giants17 49 2.9 
 Chargers13 58 4.5 
 Cardinals13 17 1.3 
 Panthers13 0.1 
 Redskins14 54 3.9 
 49ers18 54 3.0 
Broncos 19 35 1.8 
 Cowboys25 102 4.1 
 Bears10 -6 -0.6 
Seahawks 19 70 3.7 
Rams14 101 7.2 
 Giants22 61 2.8 
 TOTAL223 723 3.2 

For a team that has struggled tackling recently, Lynch will give them a good test heading into the playoffs.

3) The Eagles' secondary vs. Oakland's quick throw offense

The Giants destroyed the Eagles' secondary Week 15 with quick throws, followed up by double moves. 

"We were giving up plays up front early," said Jim Schwartz. "When we tighten down to start being more aggressive, the down part of that is you become susceptible to double moves. We got to play both. That's part of the job description of a corner is you have to be able to defend short passes and deep passes. 

"You have to be able to recognize some situations. We didn't do the greatest job in the first three series of recognizing some situations where there was potential for them to throw a double move. Not all of them are identifiable, but some of them I think we could have been a little bit better there.

"When we have chances to play the ball and get the ball, we have to take advantage of those. We had three different times in that game that we had balls that hit our hands. If we make those plays, then we're feeling a lot different. Even though the final score probably wouldn't have been the same, or the result maybe wouldn’t have been the same, we still win the game, but we stop those drives a little bit earlier."

In Week 16, the Raiders will present a similar challenge. On the season, Derek Carr has gotten the ball out of his hands, on average, in 2.44 seconds. That is the second-lowest amount of time from snap to throw in the NFL. As a result, the Raiders have only allowed 21 sacks this season.

It is going to be on the secondary again this week to defend the short passing game and make good tackles when they give up completions, which is something they have not done very well over the last three games.

In the Raiders, they'll be facing an opponent with three talented receiving options in Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and tight end Jared Cook.

4) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Raiders' rush D

By the time Christmas night rolls around, weather forecasts say that the temperature is going to be around 25 degrees with winds of around 10-15 MPH. That will be a preview of what the weather will be like in the playoffs.

The Eagles have three bruising backs in LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement. If the Eagles are indeed able to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, there's a good chance they'll have to face some dome teams (Vikings, Falcons, Saints), or warm-weather teams (Panthers, Rams) along the way. 

With Carson Wentz out for the season, there may be times when the run game is going to have to help out Nick Foles. The Eagles may as well get that run game going as a tune-up for the playoffs.

5) The turnover battle

In 2017, the Raiders have just four interceptions. As in, their entire team. Four! There are 17 individual players that have at least four interceptions this season.

On the season, the Eagles are +9 in turnover differential, while the Raiders are -9. The idea that Foles needs to just "not turn the ball over" is a hell of a lot easier said than done.

"Yeah, it's hard," Reich acknowledged. "Especially for our guys, who like their head coach and like their offensive staff, we preach touchdown, check-down mentality. We want to push the ball down the field, we want to get chunk plays. When we get in the red zone we want to throw the ball into the end zone, but that's not an excuse to be careless. We still have to maintain discipline.

"How do you be aggressive and disciplined at the same time? That's just a lot of preparation, a lot of practice, a lot of mental drilling. Having that unique 'it' factor to be able to do it. That's why some guys make it and some guys don't. They can't figure out how to be aggressive and be disciplined at the same time. Obviously, Nick has proven he knows how to do that."

So far, so good. In his first start against the Giants, Foles had a clean stat sheet. That needs to continue into the playoffs.

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