By Nick Shook
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Are the Eagles for real? Fresh off an emphatic win over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, Philadelphia returns home to host the Washington Redskins. Midseason NFC East supremacy is on the line when the two teams meet at 8:30 p.m. ET.
Here’s what we’re watching for in the divisional battle:
1. Who is the better surgeon under center? Carson Wentz has had quite the start to the 2017 season, leading the Eagles to a 5-1 record in their first six games with plenty of touchdown passes (13) and very little mistakes (three interceptions). Will the second-year passer continue his hot start against a Redskins secondary that could be missing some of its best members, or will the pressure of the bright lights and big stage be too much?
We know what to expect from Kirk Cousins — or at least we think we do. Last season, Cousins tended to shine in big games, picking apart defenses through the air. This year, things have been a little different for the Redskins‘ offense. Instead of relying on 2016 breakout target Jamison Crowder, Cousins has spread the ball around the group, relying heavily on running back Chris Thompson out of the backfield. Thompson is tied for the team lead in receptions with tight end Jordan Reed (18), though the running back has more than doubled Reed’s yardage, taking his grabs 340 yards and scoring twice in the process. With Rob Kelley expected to start at running back, will Cousins instead turn to his traditional receivers more often?
2. Is this the game in which Terrelle Pryor finally lives up to the offseason hype? Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby (ankle) is questionable, increasing the load on the rest of the Philadelphia secondary. The Eaglesmight also be without linebackers Jordan Hicks (calf) and Mychal Kendricks (hamstring), meaning a defensive back might be needed to account for Thompson out of the backfield, leaving Philadelphia’s defense that much thinner. With the listed defenders potentially out of the game, could this be the opening Pryor has been looking for? He has just 16 catches for 209 yards on the year but might see his most favorable of the season as part of an offense that hasn’t leaned on one particular target. His big frame should serve him well against lesser defensive backs in a game that is sure to feature plenty of passes from Cousins.
3. Start the engine of the Eagles‘ ground game. Washington will be without defensive tackle Jonathan Allen for three months because of foot surgery, leaving a big hole on the defensive line. In steps former Steeler Ziggy Hood, who isn’t nearly as reliable as who he replaced. Philadelphia hasn’t leaned on its run game often, but with Redskins linebacker Mason Foster also questionable with a knee injury, Monday night could be the perfect time for LeGarrette Blount to bust loose. The running back rumbled to a 136-yard day in a win over the Chargers earlier in the season and has averaged better than 4.5 yards a carry in each of his last four games. Monday might serve as the perfect setting for his biggest night as an Eagle. Then again, the Redskins are thin in the secondary, meaning …
4. Prepare for the air attack. We highlighted Wentz’s hot start earlier in this post, and with Josh Normanalready ruled out with a rib injury and Bashaud Breeland (knee) questionable, disaster could await the Redskins‘ defense. This sets up perfectly for Wentz to have a night to remember, and with Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery each already over 300 yards receiving, Philadelphia is primed for an explosive night. Let’s not forget Philadelphia’s leading receiver, tight end Zach Ertz, who is coming off a two-touchdown night in a Thursday Night Football win over Carolina. For the first time since the days of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia has plenty of toys for its quarterback to utilize in the passing game, with a prime matchup awaiting the Eagles.
5. Which defense steps up to the challenge? Records aside, this matchup is about as even as they come. Seriously, look at this:
It’s difficult to find a significant advantage for either team with averages that close. This one is setting up for a solid game from Cousins (Philadelphia allows close to 50 more passing yards per game than Washington), and a decent night on the ground for the Eagles (Washington is allowing 88 rushing yards per game as opposed to Philadelphia’s 65.7). Realistically, the averages play directly into the strengths of the Redskins more than the Eagles, but with the aforementioned injuries plaguing Washington, we have to take their 228 passing yards per game with a grain of salt. Perhaps this one will come down to third-down conversions, with the Eagles owning a 10 percent advantage. At home, Wentz and the Eagles look to have a better chance of converting the crucial down and extending drives.
Yes, this looks like a jumble of similar statistics. Let’s go to the game’s vital stat: turnover differential. The Eagles are seventh in the league there, owning a plus-4 mark, while Washington is near the bottom middle of the league with a minus-1 differential. Like most games, the team that turns the ball over less usually wins. Opportunistic defense will prove to be the difference in this one. Which unit fills that role is yet to be determined.