Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter Wonderin'

Nothing like a new year and a resolution to get me back into making the time for blogging about all things Philly sports….

Sooooo, let’s see what I missed over the last three weeks. Only that the Eagles rose from the dead to become the fourth straight Philadelphia team to make the postseason. The last time all four Philly teams made the playoffs was 1981, which followed the magical 1980 season when all four reached their sport’s championship game.

How unlikely was the Eagles flight to a Wild Card game against the Vikings Sunday? Who didn’t laugh when coach Andy Reid said after the Cincinnati game that a tie would help them more than a loss would with their playoff chances? To quote Jim Mora: “Playoffs?????”

No one gave the Eagles a shot at the postseason after that game or the next, a 36-7 beatdown by Baltimore that put the Eagles at 5-5-1 and McNabb on the bench for the second half. But the NFL has been crazy this year, which helped the Eagles’ cause, sometimes more than their own play.

Here’s an example of just how topsy-turvy it’s been: Before the season, the two teams with the longest odds to win the Super Bowl were the Miami Dolphins (250-1) and the Atlanta Falcons (200-1). The preseason favorites were the New England Patriots (2-1) and the Dallas Cowboys (7-1). The Dolphins and Falcons are in the playoffs, the Patriots and Cowboys are out.

Some overly hopeful Eagle optimists are comparing the Eagles’ stretch run to the Phillies’ own hot ride, and forecasting great things in the playoffs. Not me.

The only similarity to this point: both teams won 80 percent of their last games. The Phillies went 24-6 down the stretch, including the playoffs, while the Eagles have won four of their last five.

But in doing so, the Phillies won their division and benefited by having home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The wild-card-winning Eagles have to hit the road against the Vikings, with two more potential road games ahead.

This Eagles team also isn’t like last year’s Giants, who won 11 straight road games on the way to the title. The Eagles this year are a measly 3-4-1—on merit.

One other not-so-minor detail about the Phillies/Eagles comparison that doesn’t work. When Cole Hamels was on the mound, four of the nine Phillies starters were legitimate MVP/Cy Young candidates (Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley).

The Eagles have one possible MVP-caliber player, if he’s healthy (Brian Westbrook) and a few others among the best at their positions (Asante Samuel, Brian Dawkins, Trent Cole). With just four of 22 starters among the best at their position, this is not a team stacked with superstars.

Actually, if there’s any hope for the Eagles—and any team that optimists can hope the Eagles will resemble—it rests with the Eagles’ defense, which makes the team look a little bit like the Super Bowl champion 2000 Baltimore Ravens (if you squint and don’t look too hard).

During the Eagles’ 4-1 streak, the defense has scored more touchdowns (3) than it has allowed (2). The Eagles’ defense led the NFC in points allowed, total yards, and passing yards, and is second in rushing yards, and receiving yards.

The 2000 Ravens’ defense was a monster, led by AP defensive player of the year linebacker Ray Lewis. They set NFL records for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165; the 2008 Eagles have allowed 289), and fewest rushing yards allowed (970; the Eagles have given up 1,476).

What makes the comparison to those Ravens a little more fitting are the oddities. The Ravens, like the Eagles were 5-4 at one point, and both starting quarterbacks were benched mid-season. (The Ravens sat Tony Banks for Trent Dilfer and didn’t go back to Banks.) The Ravens also were a wild-card team, though at 12-4, they got to host a first-round game.

The bottom line: The Eagles defense will probably lead the team to a first-round win and will help keep things close in the second round against the Giants. But that’s about it—and even that is more than this inconsistent team deserves.

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