PHILADELPHIA – Funny thing, the NFL schedule. It stays exactly the same, but looks completely different depending on when you look at it.
In the spring, Sunday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals didn’t exactly jump out at fans of the Philadelphia Eagles. The opener at Washington did. That game in Green Bay was daunting. And of course the season finale at Dallas loomed large. But the Cardinals at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 13?
Now that Week 13 is here, this game is a big one in every sense for the Eagles. The Cardinals (7-4) are another team with a first-year head coach looking for a way into the playoffs. It is the first game of the season in which Nick Foles officially is the Eagles’ No. 1 quarterback. And, as fate and the schedule-makers would have it, the Cards are almost perfectly designed to test every facet of the Eagles.
* The Cardinals' defense is very good against the run, and the Eagles' offense starts with LeSean McCoy.
“They’re a very stingy defense,” McCoy said. “They’re a good group. I’m not sure if they’ll be the best defense we face, but they’re definitely one of them.”
The Eagles' offense has had two truly poor games, failing to score a single touchdown in back-to-back home games against Dallas and the Giants. McCoy was held under 60 yards rushing in both games. That isn’t coincidental.
McCoy had only 44 rushing yards in a 49-20 win in Oakland, but that was a case of Chip Kelly choosing not to run the ball, not of the Eagles being unable to run the ball.
* The Eagles' defense has been vastly improved, but when it struggled, it was against veteran quarterbacks with big-time receivers. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will be an acid test of the defense’s progress.
“[Palmer] is playing his best football I've seen in years,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “His offense in the last four weeks … is as explosive and hitting on all cylinders as we've faced in a while now. It would be our biggest challenge of the last five, six weeks.”
Davis also called Fitzgerald “probably still the best receiver in the league,” an evaluation that may change next week after he studies tape of Calvin Johnson.
The Eagles' defense has continued to give up enormous yardage but has done well in the red zone and limited scoring. Palmer, Fitzgerald and the rest of the Cards’ weapons will test that formula.
* Foles has had some good fortune – underthrown balls becoming touchdowns, defensive backs falling down – on his side during his player-of-the-month November. The Cardinals can blitz, tackle and cover with the best of them.
“They've got Pro Bowl players all over the place,” Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “They're big, they're physical, they like to pressure and they challenge everything. … Their blitz percentage has been pretty consistent no matter who they've played or what style of offense. So I think they believe in pressuring. They trust their corners in their ability to cover, whether it's a man pressure or some kind of a fire zone.”
Blitzing presents challenges and opportunities in equal measure. If Foles can move the ball against arguably the toughest defense he’s faced this season, that would be another step in his development.
* Finally, the Eagles have to re-establish the Linc as their home field. They snapped their 10-game home losing streak against Washington. A home winning streak – with three of four at home against NFC contenders – would go a long way toward earning them a playoff berth.
Arizona is coming off a big home win against Indianapolis. The Cards are traveling west to east for a game that probably didn’t look all that important to them when their schedule came out. The Eagles failed a similar test against San Diego early in the season. If they’ve really made progress, they’ll find a way to pass this time.