Tuesday, November 09, 2004

National Tragedy in Pittsburgh

The Eagles were pretty thoroughly spanked Sunday. It happens.

Look, this had all the omens for a bad spot for Philadelphia. Pittsburgh is unmistakably a very good football team. They were at home, a tough environment- and playing just about as well as the Steelers can. Philadelphia has been lackadaisical for about a month- almost effortlessly winning all its games by around two scores. They were not going to go undefeated. Even teams that go 13-3 have to lose a pair of road games. In short, the tenor of this loss is a lot different than say, the whipping the Patriots put on them early last year.

A lot went wrong Sunday all at once. For example, Pittsburgh can flat out run the football. Now, I do not think running the football means much in and of itself in the NFL. For example, the Eagles can’t stop the run- yet they are the best in points allowed in the NFC and second in the NFL. The Eagles don’t rush the football dependably either- nevertheless they score lots and lots of points. Pittsburgh obviously can run the football- but the Steelers were pretty bad on offense- until they got a quarterback who could exploit the running game.

However, running the football does help a team with a safe lead- and that is two scores plus in the NFL- in order to move the clock. Pittsburgh built a quick 21-0 lead and the started exclusively pounding the football at Philadelphia. They didn’t score any more touchdowns- as rushing the football means you aren’t going to score much- but ran the clock and the game out on Philadelphia.

Then, up three scores, the solid Pittsburgh defense was able to dictate to Philadelphia. And for the past four weeks, competent consistent execution in the face of pressure has not exactly been Philadelphia’s strongpoint. Down early, forced to throw, they only ran the ball nine times- part and parcel of being down so much so early. And Pittsburgh realistically is too good a defense to throw on constantly- if you are forced to pass.

I think that is why there is not a sense of panic here- as opposed again to last year’s awful Patriots loss. Everything went right for the Steelers early. They got a perfect game for them to play, and they executed skillfully. I don’t care what you think of the Eagles, they are not going to play many games down 20 points from the outset. Add that to the fact Pittsburgh is plainly very good and face it- very hot. The Steelers almost certainly have locked up a bye and a home playoff game- so you can pencil them into one of the two AFC Championship spots.

For Philadelphia, this game was the last of three in a row, two on the road, against the best of the AFC Central, with clearly little to no motivation factor. Any sane observer looking at that stretch prior to playing it would have taken two of three.

The hard part of the schedule is over. I don’t believe there is a game left where Philly won’t be at least a field goal favorite- and in five they ought to be a touchdown or so. Even better, five of the next six are against division opponents- and let’s face it- the Eagles are two scores better than everyone in NFC East. Washington and Dallas are where the NFL goes to get well right now. And the Giants have taken some real blows on the injury front.

Ultimately, this entire season is about one night- January 23rd. Today, there are only 60,000 people in America with rock-solid plans for that night, right? So why complain?