With a fairly light finish to the schedule (Weeks 13-17 opponents' combined record: 16-35), Sunday's game in Philadelphia represents the New England Patriots' hardest remaining game of the regular season.
Just when critics were prepared to write off the Eagles, Philadelphia notched a crucial 17-10 victory in New York over the Giants last week. Eagles quarterback Vince Young filled in for injured starter Michael Vick and led a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. At 4-6 the Eagles need wins, and a home game after last week's win in the Meadowlands is a good way to continue momentum. Here are three areas to watch for Sunday afternoon:
• The Eagles defense is one of the best defenses in the league at defending passes to tight ends. Philadelphia's trio of accomplished cover corners (Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) free up the safeties to help cover receiving tight ends, and only two tight ends have registered more than 45 yards in game this season against the Eagles (Fred Davis and Tony Gonzalez). However, both Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are expected to miss Sunday’s game, and their replacements (Joselio Hanson, Brandon Hughes and/or Curtis Marsh) will likely require more safety attention. This could open up the field for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, making New England's tight end production a key area to watch on Sunday afternoon.
• While there is uncertainty under center for the Eagles given Vick's rib injury, there may not be much of a change in how the Patriots plan. Both Vick and Young can hurt defenses with their feet, and have identical 17-9 touchdown-to-interception ratios against standard four men or fewer pass rushes since 2008. While Young threw three interceptions last week, Young's stat line looked a lot better on short throws (16-of-19, 114 yards, 2 TD, 0 Int on throws 10 yards or fewer). Philadelphia will likely try to limit throw distance if Young is under center. However, the Patriots' pass defense has been opportunistic of late defending those throws, with four interceptions in their past three games (league-high 10 interceptions on throws 10 yards or fewer this season).
• The Patriots will have a tougher test in planning for LeSean McCoy. McCoy has gained 1,217 total yards of offense this season (third in NFL), highlighted by his league-leading 1,019 rushing yards. Much of McCoy's credit can go to his offensive line, as McCoy is averaging 3.61 yards per rush before contact this season, the third-best rate among running backs with at least 50 attempts. However, McCoy can also hurt defenses out of the backfield, ranking eighth among running backs with 34 catches this season. How New England plans to deal with McCoy will be an interesting story to watch. Bill Belichick could almost dust off his Super Bowl XXXVI game plan, hitting the versatile McCoy on every play like the Patriots did with Marshall Faulk.