After completing one of the most improbable playoff berth-clinching runs in recent memory following a 4-6 start to the season, the Eagles find themselves in the big dance once again. Victors of five of their last six games- including a 24-0 shutout against division rival Washington to round out the regular season- Philly looks deadlier than ever as they enter the NFL playoffs for the second consecutive season. Unlike last season when the team enjoyed a bye week of rest during Wild Card weekend, the reigning champs will have their hands full in the first round this time around.
DPOY candidate Khalil Mack and the tenacious Chicago Bears lie in wait for what figures to be an unforgettable bout at Soldier Field. Chicago, just one game removed from claiming the #2 seed in the NFC, have been absolutely relentless on defense and undoubtedly represent the most formidable Eagles opponent this season. Under Vic Fangio, the Bears allowed the seventh-fewest passing yards per game, eighth-fewest passing touchdowns, and lead the league in interceptions by a healthy margin during the regular season. Additionally, behind the strength of their defensive line, the Bears also finished third in sacks on the season.
“Yeah, they’ll move him around. They’ll move him around, he’ll be on the right, be on the left, be inside.” Mike Groh said when asked about the impact of Khalil Mack, who has 12.5 sacks this year. “They’ll do a lot of different things with him. Obviously, he’s an elite pass rusher, which we faced a few of those guys this year. He certainly is excellent.
I don’t know if there is a key for the offensive line, but you have to know where he is. That’s a credit to Vic [Fangio], because he knows that by moving him around that makes it more challenging for offensives.”
Their defensive prowess wasn’t limited to the air, however, as they also allowed the fewest rushing yards per game, total rushing yards, and rushing scores. Chicago didn’t just play the run well, they completely neutralized opposing ground games and forced teams to throw their sticky-fingered secondary.
As I said earlier, the Eagles will have their hands full this Sunday, but the key to victory lies in the trenches- where the Eagles have been more than formidable in their own right. After a sluggish start, the Eagles’ Pro Bowler-filled offensive line has performed much more admirably in recent weeks. In fact, they’ve been borderline dominant since the Week 11 blowout loss to the Saints. Jason Kelce has played like a man possessed at the center position, OG Brandon Brooks is one of just three linemen to not allow a single sack all season(!), and OT Lane Johnson literally slept in the Eagles’ practice facility out of disappointment in himself after receiving word he wouldn’t be a Pro Bowler this year:
Lane Johnson told a few of us that he drove to NovaCare at 2:30 a.m. the night Pro Bowl bids were announced and he didn't make it.
"Slept up there. I’m not joking. I swear to God. I slept in the locker room. Woke up around 7:30 to get breakfast and go to meetings.”
— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 23, 2018
OL Coach Jeff Stoutland’s unit is hungry for success and seems intent on taking the proper steps necessary to make it happen. The plan against Chicago, however, should be to do more of the same. Lane Johnson has been on a tear, using his recent Pro Bowl snub as fuel, while Jason Peters, when healthy, continues to play at an elite level.
“They’re obviously a huge part of the what we do.” Groh explained on New Years Day. “J.P. and Lane have been doing it at a high level for a really long time. They are one of the big reasons for the success we’ve had. Every team can’t sit here and say that they have two bookend tackles like that.
Those guys usually rise to the challenge. They look forward to these kind of opportunities to play against the very best. They’ve had an opportunity to do that really here in the last month of the season, to play against some really, really good defensive ends, defensive tackles, so I know they’ll be ready.”
Aside from the two bookends, Jason Kelce has had arguably his greatest season as an Eagle and has been integral in the balancing of the Birds’ offense and more importantly, helping stop some of the interior monsters faced wreak havoc.
“Well, you can never underestimate the value of the Jason Kelce and what he does for our offense.” The Eagles offensive coordinator said when asked about the NFL’s most athletic center. “The poise that he plays with; his ability to be able to communicate what we want to get done. His ability to be able to recognize in an instant, get it communicated, and then everybody to be able to be in lock step with what he’s called immediately and be on the same page.
He’s invaluable to what we do offensively. And not only that, he’s just a really good football player. You can be smart, but not have the ability. He has a ton of ability to go with it, so he’s one of our team leaders and one of the reasons why we’re successful.”
Though the oft-dominant Mack and the Bears defensive front have been playing at an elite level all season, the Eagles have been containing superb pass rushers all season and shouldn’t allow the allure of Mack’s abilities to overwhelm them. The Eagles faced six pass rushers that finished in the Top 20 in sacks in 2018- Aaron Donald (20.5), JJ Watt (16), Danielle Hunter (14.5), Ryan Kerrigan (13), Demarcus Lawrence (10.5)- and held the productive crew to a combined three sacks total. Impressive stuff, to say the least, but certainly not the first time the o-line stepped up when the pressure was on. Last postseason, the Eagles only allowed two sacks total in their three playoff victories- including just one against the top-ranked Minnesota defense from a season ago. The line simply steps up against premier defenses and could give the Birds the edge they need to leave the Windy City victorious and advance to the divisional round.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports