Monday, October 24, 2005

The Lesson is Free

There is a lot of cheery enthusiasm in NFC East this morning. Both Giants and Redskins fans are savoring solid starts- realizing after years of denial, that quality quarterback play goes a long way into making a team a decent wild card contender.

Just Wild Card contenders? Well, of course. Because as every NFC denizen knows, Daddy won too- and has officially overcome a so-so start to return to 1st place in NFC East. Any celebrations in DC and New York are tempered. You see, both teams have the dreaded “Philadelphia” and the even more dreaded “at Philadelphia” on their dance cards.

I am not crazy optimistic about the Eagles. I get it. There is no question: this team has regressed from its utter cruel dominance from last year. They have issues at tailback- and the quarterback is pretty badly hurt. They flatly cannot approach 14-2, 13-3 with a hurt, gimpy McNabb struggling. For years, they have been able to count on McNabb simply killing teams both in and out of the pocket- and the Eagles clearly have not yet stumbled upon an offensive approach that both consistently gets the ball out of his hands and still scores points against solid defenses.

But the riddle is still not a bad one: are they a nine/ten win team or an eleven/twelve win team?

People are calling their win yesterday miraculous and stunning- and it sort of was. But the difference between ten and twelve wins is games like that- finding a way to win a game or two on those six Sundays when you deserve to get beat.

Clearly, the Chargers took it to them in the second half. The Philadelphia defense played pretty well- bit you aren’t gonna get me to throw to many platitudes to a unit that blew a two-score second half lead. But you also cannot simply say the Chargers choked.

Look, the Eagles did what good teams do when they struggle. They kept it close. The defense got off the field quickly again and again in the fourth quarter- and refused to let the Chargers powerful rushing attack chew up the clock. They kept the Chargers out of the end zone twice late after turnovers- forbidding the clinching touchdown. They forced a pair of hugely critical fourth quarter turnovers. The first was at 17-10- an interception in Chargers territory. The Eagles could not score the tying TD- but they made sure to get some points, McNabb did not force anything- important points that meant that a Chargers mistake meant they lost the game- rather than playing OT. The second turnover sealed the game.

The emergency kicker made two kicks- including a clutch fourth quarter one. Some teams can’t find one kicker. But the Eagles consistently get contributions from the odd roster spots.

Despite being bottled up offensively, the team kept the game competitive- so that one Charger mistake meant the game- and turned one of those six bad Sundays into one where they survived. It won’t happen every time the Eagles struggle- but a regular key to getting 12 wins is to steal a pair when you deserve to lose.

Maybe the blocked kick was a miracle- but Philadelphia forced the Chargers again and again and again to execute. Execute your running game. Execute your punt coverage. Execute your field goal protection. And by the way, we’ve kept ourselves in a position where if you mess up, just once, under pressure, on the road, in a hostile atmosphere- well, you lose.

So, get on the plane to California chumps. Enjoy your flight. The lesson was free.