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December 31, 2017

Worried about the Eagles? Here are five reasons why they can still reach the Super Bowl

If you're an Eagles fan preparing to enter 2018 curled up in the fetal position in your bed because you believe the season to be over, I'm not really sure I can console you. Because you might be entirely correct. 

Watching the Birds struggle to the finish line in their final two regular-season games was not easy to watch, and may have downright ruined your two favorite nights of the year (Christmas and New Year's Eve). If not, you likely threw in the towel back in Week 14 when Carson Wentz tore his left ACL.

However, the majority of Eagles fans still thought Eagles could overcome the loss of an MVP-candidate quarterback and still stood a chance at making it to Super Bowl LII in February. A few jumped ship after the Giants game, followed by many more after seeing the offense struggle against Oakland. 

Now, after being shut out by the Cowboys – albeit without their starters for the majority of the game – the number of people still believing in the Birds as a legit threat to win the NFC is rapidly declining. 

Of course, don't tell head coach Doug Pederson that.

"You know, it's tough. Am I concerned? I'm not concerned. I’ve still got a lot confidence in our offense," Pederson said following his team's 6-0 loss to Dallas. "Again, it's not one person or one guy. There is enough to go around. It's tough in this situation where you know you're kind of maybe only going to get a quarter, maybe a couple series, and you're coming out. But I’ve still got a lot of confidence in the guys."

You may think he's crazy – or that he started his New Year's celebrating a bit early – but he's not entirely wrong. 

There is still reason to hold out hope for this team. Not the kind of hope you had with Wentz playing, but hope nonetheless. I can't tell you the Eagles will, or even should, win the NFC. Not with the way they've been playing. 

But I can tell you there's still a chance. And isn't that what hope is all about?

I'm sorry if that's not good enough to get you to peek out from under the covers. Just hear me out first... 

They have home-field advantage

Sure, the Eagles just lost to the Cowboys, 6-0, at the Linc in one of the ugliest games in recent memory – and barely beat the Raiders in Week 16 – but that doesn't mean this won't be a huge advantage for them moving forward. 

Despite the offensive struggles over their last two games, the Eagles' defense has returned to form after returning home from that three-game road trip that saw them begin to trend in the wrong direction while allowing over 29 points per game. Overall at home this season, the Eagles defense has been on another level, holding opponents to just under 14 points/game, compared to 23.5 points/game on the road. 

They also haven't allowed a rushing touchdown at home this season.

AWAY 4.2 7 6.4 13-8 82.9
HOME 3.1 0 5.7 10-11 71.4

"Well, first of all, two weeks from now we fully expect the stadium to be rocking with the Eagles fans," Pederson said. "Our fans have been great all season long. We can't wait until then, whether we play Saturday or Sunday and all of that. Listen, we've got time to get some guys healthy and fresh. Our defense is playing extremely well right now. You get into the postseason and have to play great defense and be able to run the football. 

"That's been our formula pretty much all season long. We have to get back to that, and I’ve got a lot of confidence moving forward."

Well, you're right and you're wrong, Doug. You left out a big part of that formula – Carson Wentz – and you're not getting him back. That being said, running the ball and playing great defense is definitely what you need to do in the postseason. And, luckily for them, that might be the two areas in which they're currently the best.

They have a strong offensive line and potent, rested rushing attack

The Eagles may have only run the ball for 148 yards combined in their last two games – and haven't scored a rushing TD since Week 11 – but they're still among the best rushing teams in the league. They also have the kind of power running game that tends to work well in the postseason with LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement.

While Ajayi was the only one of those three to sit out the Eagles' meaningless regular-season finale on Sunday, all three should be feeling good when the divisional round of the playoffs rolls around. Blount leads the team in carries with 173 carries after he ran the ball nine times for 37 yards against Dallas. Clement in his first NFL season, has just 75 carries this year. And Ajayi, who technically has the most this season (208), has only carried the ball 70 times since being acquired by the Eagles.

Then there's the offensive line, which features a pair of Pro Bowlers in Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks – and an all-time snub in Jason Kelce. Despite the loss of Jason Peters earlier in the year, the line has held up fairly well for the Eagles. And if the Eagles are wise and allow the ground game to lead the way in the playoffs, it'll take a lot of pressure off the weaker left side of the line – and do wonders in terms of protecting Nick Foles' blind side.

Now, it becomes a question of whether or not they can execute because they've done everything but that in their last two games.

“I think that obviously, we aren’t happy with the way we’ve performed the last two weeks," Kelce said of the offense. "We don’t really have time to worry. We’re just trying to focus on getting better and improving what’s going wrong, why it’s happening and correct it. You’re always just trying to improve and prove what you did wrong and not do it again. It’s just been a frustrating last couple of weeks."

Their defense is still one of the best in the league

We touched on this earlier, but the Eagles defense is probably the number reason this team can still make it Minneapolis for the Super Bowl. Their dominance at home aside, the Birds have been stellar all season with the exception of the aforementioned road trip, one that included a pair of West Coast games against two pretty good teams in the Rams and Seahawks. In the two games since, however, they've held Dallas and Oakland to a combined 16 points, despite not getting any help at all from the offense and resting several of their starters against the Cowboys, how kept their starters in the entire game. 

They're going to need to keep that up going forward, because the competition is only going to get tougher – and the offense didn't do much to instill any confidence in their final performance of 2017. But the recent play from Jim Schwartz's defense, especially in a meaningless game on Sunday, is definitely a good sign.

“I think all year we’ve had our rough spots, but for the most part we’ve been who we are – physical, play with passion and emotion, and try to stop the run first," said defensive end Chris Long. "I think [Dallas] ended up over 100 yards today. I don’t know how many Zeke [Elliott] ended up with. I wish we could’ve kept him under 100, but they were committed to giving him the ball. 

"I think that’s the type of defense that we should try to be throughout the playoffs; to keep the points down and play physical at home here in the cold."

[Elliott ran for 103 yards on Sunday. It was the first time all season the Birds allowed an opposing running back to rush for over 100 yards.]

They might also be playing for their coordinator's job – not the one here, but the vacant head coaching position up the turnpike in New York. Schwartz is expected to interview there over the bye week and is the favorite to land the job.

So, he must be doing something right.

Nick Foles can't play much worse

After throwing four touchdowns against the Giants in his first start of the season, Foles went out and struggled mightily against the Raiders on Christmas night against the Raiders. On Sunday, against another subpar defense in the Cowboys, Foles somehow looked even worse in his limited action, completing 4 of 11 passes for 39 and throwing one interception for a whopping 9.3 passer rating.

He only played a few series and was lifted in the second quarter for rookie backup Nate Sudfeld, but it definitely wasn't the kind of performance you want lingering in the back of your mind with all this time off. Still, Foles is confident as he heads into the playoffs for the first time since the Eagles lost to the Saints at home back in January of 2014.  

That's 11 times more than I've heard from fans. So why does he believe the offense will come out firing when the Birds next take the field?

"I’d say because I’ve played a lot of football," Foles said. "I know who I am as a player and I also know that throughout my career and my life, I haven’t always played great games. I’ve been in games where execution hasn’t gone like we wanted it to. And the key is you remain confident because you know who you are. You know that you’re going to prepare every day to do everything to the best of your ability. It’s not like we go out there and say, ‘Hey we’re not going to play to the best of our ability today.’ We went out there and played as hard as we could. 

"We didn’t execute, but that’s stuff that we can fix because I know every single guy in that offensive huddle and on this team gives everything they have. That’s something that you can’t just teach. That’s something that’s within and we have that. The 13-3 – that’s because of that. Guys believe and they give everything they have. So that’s [how] I’m confident because I’m confident in myself and I’m confident in my teammates because I know what we’re capable of doing and that’s great things."

Nick Foles isn't Carson Wentz, but he's certainly better than the quarterback we saw over the last two weeks. I mean, he can't be any worse, right?

Finally, there's no team in the NFC that the Eagles can't beat.

Back when Wentz was healthy, I'd argue that there was no team in the conference they shouldn't beat, but that's no longer the case. However, even with Foles, the Eagles are still good enough to beat any of the other NFC teams standing between them and the Super Bowl. What might have been a 60-40 Eagles' win may now look more like 40-60 (or even 30-70), but there's no team I look at and say, "I can't see any way the Birds come out on top." 

While Carson Wentz may have been the biggest reason the Eagles got off to an 11-2 start, he wasn't the only reason. All of the above points play into this final one, from the play of the defense to home-field advantage. 

The margin of error is nearly non-existent now, sure – especially if Foles looks anything like he did over the last two games – but none of the other playoff teams are perfect. They each have their own flaws, just like the Birds. 

The Saints have a Super Bowl champion at quarterback and a tough defense. However, they're 4-4 on the road this season after losing to the Bucs. And they're biggest strength on offense – the backfield duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara – plays right in the Birds' biggest strength on defense, stopping the run.

Like New Orleans, the Vikings are also an indoor team. And while their defense is the best in the NFL, Case Keenum has never made a postseason start, let alone in cold weather in Philly. If the Eagles can take away the run, it could be a long day for Foles' former teammate. 

The Rams have a rookie quarterback with zero playoff experience. And while they're 7-1 on the road this season, they also haven't had to play much in the cold, at least nothing close to what it will likely be should they have to come to Philly.

None are unbeatable.

I am, but it's just that. A chance.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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