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August 26, 2018

Eagles' Week 1 game is kind of a big deal and they could really use Carson Wentz for it

When Howie Roseman re-emerged as the Eagles' executive vice president of football operations -- or more easily stated, the general manager --  he said that he wanted to build a team that was earning first round byes in the playoffs, not 10-6 teams that make the playoffs but have extreme uphill battles to make it to the Super Bowl.

And, well, that thinking, while obvious, is dead on. Playoff history in the NFL shows that it is a hell of a lot easier to make it to the Super Bowl when you have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, or at least a first round bye. That is especially true of the last five years.

Year Super Bowl participants (playoff seed in parentheses) 
 2017Eagles (1) vs. Patriots (1) 
 2016Falcons (2) vs. Patriots (1) 
 2015Panthers (1) vs. Broncos (1)
 2014 Seahawks (1) vs. Patriots (1)
 2013Seahawks (1) vs. Broncos (1) 

During the above five-year span, the average number of wins necessary to earn one of the 10 home field advantages throughout the playoffs was exactly 13. In order to earn the No. 2 seed, three teams had 13 wins, six teams had 12 wins, and just one was able to get the No. 2 seed with 11 wins.

In other words, the margin for error for teams to put themselves in a position to earn at least a first round bye, or even better, home field advantage, is small.

Certainly, there are examples of teams that have made it to the Super Bowl despite longer odds heading into the playoffs. Six teams, for example, have won the Super Bowl as wildcard teams, but those success stories are few and far between. For the sake of trivia, they were the 1980 Raiders, the 1997 Broncos, the 2000 Ravens, the 2005 Steelers, the 2007 Giants, and the 2010 Packers.

Now, having laid out the above, let's discuss the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles. 

In case you've been living in a cave, they have an MVP-caliber young quarterback named Carson Wentz, who, without hyperbole, has a chance of eventually becoming the best player in the NFL, capable of leading multiple parades down Broad Street. This Wentz fellow, however, tore his ACL and LCL last December. His rehab from said injuries has been impressive, so much so that both the head coach and the quarterbacks coach have said on the record that they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between how he looks as a player right now compared with how he looked, pre-injury, other than the fact that he is wearing a knee brace.

And then there's this other fellow named Nick Foles, who filled in for the injured Wentz, who looked horrendous initially, and then eventually rebounded (and then some) to lead the Eagles to an improbable Super Bowl run while taking home Super Bowl MVP honors. 

As a result of Foles' postseason success, a common thinking on local sports radio talk and the like is that the Eagles should just play Foles for, say, the first four games or so, go 3-1 or something, and then let Wentz take over from there.

Easy peasy, right?

Personally, I don't buy that line of thinking for a second. To begin, with the margin of error being as thin as it is already, the NFC in 2018 is widely regarded as being loaded, making it even harder to get one of those two first round byes. Jeffrey Lurie, for example, recently compared the NFC to the stacked Western Conference in the NBA

Last season, the Eagles had to navigate one of the tougher six-packs of playoff teams in NFC history. On the whole, the NFC playoff teams combined for 69 wins, which was the fifth-highest total since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990.

All of the 2017 playoff teams (the Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, and to a lesser degree, the Carolina Panthers) all have compelling reasons for why they will be Super Bowl contenders in 2018. However, it's the strength of the rest of the conference that makes the NFC extra formidable.

  1. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers back.
  2. The Cowboys are one season removed from having won 13 games and could have Zeke Elliott for a full season.
  3. The Seahawks still have a top-five quarterback.
  4. The 49ers and Bears seem to be on the upswing. 

On paper, there's good reason to believe that the NFC is going to be even harder to navigate this year than it was in 2017, especially considering that the Eagles are going to have a gigantic red target on their metaphorical forehead.

So, what about Week 1?

Well, to begin, the Falcons (the Eagles' Week 1 opponent), are a damn good football team.

In 2016, they nearly won a Super Bowl, if not for some highly questionable game-situation decisions. Matt Ryan was the NFL's MVP, and the Falcons had outstanding skill position players around him, most notably Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. That set of triplets is still there.

In 2017, for whatever reason (the reason most commonly attributed is the offensive coordinator downgrade from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian), the Falcons were not as potent offensively as they were during their run to the Super Bowl. In 2016, they led the NFL with 540 points scored. In 2017, they had 353 points scored, which was good for ninth in the NFC.

Still, those 2017 Falcons made the playoffs, knocked off the Rams on the road in the first round, and then gave the Eagles all they could handle in the divisional round. Hell, if Keanu Neal makes an easy interception at the end of the first half instead of having it bounce off his knee and into the hands of Torrey Smith, the Falcons probably would have won that game and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

Taken a little off-guard by a question (from me) about how the Eagles' first game against Atlanta might affect their chances of earning a first round bye, Doug Pederson responded, "I know this: That every team in the National Football League wants to start fast. Meaning, win their first game. I talk to the team a lot, as you guys know, about goals. And one of them is we definitely have to win our home games. I mean, it's just part of it. Does it mean that we're not in the post-season if we don't win the home opener? No. It's a long season.

"So it's hard to sit here and speculate, but I do know that we're going to coach and play and do everything we can to win the first game of the season. That's obviously a sign in the right direction.

"But as far as the post-season, there's so much football after that that I don't think one game is going to make or break your season."

Pederson is right. Certainly, losing the first game of the season doesn't mean the team will just go, "Welp, that's it. Onto 2019." 

However, there's no denying that first game against the Falcons is a huge game. It's a game against an NFC Super Bowl contender with head-to-head implications. It's a game that will count toward the Eagles' NFC record, for general playoff tie-breaker purposes. And, finally, it could also be a underrated tie-breaking differentiator in terms of record against "common opponents," of which the Eagles and Falcons have six.

Long term vs. short term

But what about the long term? Remember when Robert Griffin III came back too early, got hurt, and his career was ruined? Yes, certainly the Eagles don't want to play Wentz too early at the expense of a potentially long, sustained run atop the NFC.

Ultimately, however, if the doctors clear Wentz to play, he's going to play. Mike Groh said it best.

"We're going to listen to the doctors and medical team and they'll make that determination," Groh said. "If he's cleared, he's cleared. Once you say you're cleared, you're cleared. You're ready to go. It's not like you're cleared, but...

"And when they give us a green light that he's cleared, then we know that it'll be time to really get him ramping it up and get him ready for the games."

Wentz vs. Foles

While Foles did indeed bring home Super Bowl MVP honors and will be forever be a legend in Philadelphia, there's no question that Wentz is a far better player who gives the Eagles the best chance to win in 2018, either just generally speaking, or in any one individual game. 

Obviously, the Eagles can beat the Falcons Week 1 behind Foles, however, their chances of doing so with Wentz at the helm are much greater.

Assuming Wentz is cleared by doctors, is it worth playing him Week 1? In a game that has the makings of a conference playoff-shaping outcome, it is, in my view, absolutely worth playing him over holding him out for some other arbitrary period of time to begin the season.

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