Friday, January 21, 2005

Once More Into the Breech

Stepping outside today, did you feel it? The angry twenty degrees, the cutting wind? Feels like NFC Championship Game weekend. And of course, according to long-standing NFL tradition, the game will be held Sunday in Philadelphia in front of howling, oh-so-drunken mob. The weather Fates are calling for lots of snow and raw cold- perfect weather for a fight. The 65,000 will be ready. We’re ready Andy!

proclaim it, throughout my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse
The line that greets us in Philadelphia -5 over Atlanta. I must admit I find that line cheap; it opened at -4 and has moved steadily up since. It has touched -5.5; I would not be surprised to see at -6 come kick-off.

Last year, I fairly confidently picked Carolina in this spot. The Eagles looked used up: most of their defense was out, the quarterback was hurt, Westbrook was out. Philadelphia needed both an outright miracle and an unbelievable intimidating home-field advantage to get by Green Bay.

This year feels different. In fact, I am convinced the Falcons are in whole lot of trouble here. The Eagles are better and healthier on both offense and defense. The Falcons are a Dome team forced to come outside- in what are projected to be horrific conditions. Vick is fun and entertaining- but c’mon... Vick's upside in three years is McNabb. I am not sure the Falcons are all that great either; I look back to that Tampa Bay game and this Falcon’s team can definitely be handled- particularly on offense.

I simply cannot see the Falcons doing simply anything on offense Sunday. First, Vick is not going to be able to throw it a lick. This is not a unique observation- the Vegas over/under for the “Vick completions” prop wager is, get this, eleven. How on earth can you game plan a winning effort if your passing attack is predicated on "Vick sort of running around and making amazing things happen"? Worse, their wide outs are “2003 Eagles” style bad. Grotesque example: not one wide out has as many yards receiving as the brutal Todd Pinkston. The wind means the Eagles are not going to have to worry about protecting the perimeter- and their wide outs cannot beat Philadelphia's corners, even without safety help, deep consistently.

A great truism in the NFL is that if a defense can totally take away the offense’s ability to throw- a situation I am sure will exist Sunday- that offense is in real trouble. Not fearing the perimeter passing attack or the deep ball, Philadelphia will be able to pack the middle of the field and eliminate the run- and have eight guys consistently fifteen yards away from the mobile Vick. Vick is good- but he cannot teleport himself yet. And as Tampa showed, if you can keep a lot of guys “near” Vick while simultaneously covering their wide-outs, the Falcons are frankly ineffective.

Since Trotter's move to the middle, the Eagles’ varsity defense has allowed just over ten points per game- and around eight if you eliminate garbage scores in the Dallas/Green Bay blowouts. The Falcons will struggle mightly to surpass that number.

On offense, the TO hand-wringers need to take a moment and acknowledge that the last eight times McNabb and Westbrook have played together, without TO, they have averaged a shade under thirty points per outing. That is a lot. The Eagles will score around that number again. They were a little rusty against Minnesota- and only played offense for about a half before dialing it down- and still scored 27. It will be yet another in a seemingly endless supply of Reid directed offensive efforts: McNabb won’t turn it over, Westbrook will have a crazy day, and Pinkston & Mitchell will do enough to survive.

Lastly, this game is similar in some ways to the Chicago play-off game a few years back- with the Eagles facing an offense that is dependant somewhat on serendipity rather than competence. Accordingly, the Eagles could really help themselves by coming after the Falcons physically- knock the happy right the hell out of them. The Eagles are tougher upfront than this team- particularly on defense. Philadelphia must be nasty and ill-humored. It absolutely would not hurt to see them hit Vick “a little late” or “a little out of bounds”- both making the game “hard” for Vick to play and forcing the Falcons to play something rather than simply “offense”.

Roman Catholics believe- rather used to believe before the awful neo-liberalism- that there are four sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance. I find that to be an excellent analogy here- the Eagles’ fourth try for the Super Bowl and the assembled horde will be crying for retribution- our long anticipated settling of scores. People of Philadelphia: Rejoice and be glad! Take the -5; this won’t even be close. A day to be remembered- one team, one city that would not quit. There is an honor in that, and a story to not be forgotten.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in “Philadelphia” now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon this day.