The Philadelphia Eagles have often performed their best in December under Andy Reid. The expected Super Bowl contenders will be hoping that trend continues, as they enter the month with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread heading into a critical Thursday night tussle with the Seattle Seahawks from CenturyLink Field.
Losses in three of the past four weeks have left the defending NFC East champion Eagles in a perilous position in regards to extending their streak of postseason appearances to four straight years. At 4-7, Philadelphia currently trails rival Dallas by three games in the division standings with five to play, and is behind the three top teams (Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit) in the conference Wild Card race by the same margin.
Though the Eagles clearly face an uphill climb, history says it's not an impossible one. Philadelphia was in a similar situation back in 2006, having compiled a 5-6 record through 12 weeks and faced with a two-game deficit behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. The team rallied to win its final five tests to leap past both Dallas and the New York Giants and seize the division crown.
"None of us can predict the future and how things will go," said Reid following last Sunday's 38-20 home loss to AFC powerhouse New England. "There are a lot of different variables there, so you keep fighting. That's what you do."
That 2006 comeback was fueled by then-backup quarterback Jeff Garcia, standing in for an injured Donovan McNabb at that time, and the Eagles may have to lean on an another second-stringer for Thursday's crucial test. With Michael Vick still on the mend from a rib fracture sustained in a Week 10 defeat to Arizona, Vince Young seems likely to draw the start under center for a third consecutive week.
Young threw for a career-high 400 yards while completing 26-of-48 attempts in last week's loss to the Patriots, but Philadelphia's inconsistent defense was shredded for 361 yards and three scoring passes by New England superstar Tom Brady and allowed four touchdown drives of 69 yards or more.
The Eagles had permitted just 278 total yards in a much-needed 17-10 victory over the Giants on the road the previous Sunday.
Seattle is coming off a disappointing defensive display of its own from a week ago, surrendering 416 total yards in a 23-17 home setback to Washington that ended the Redskins' six-game losing streak.
The Seahawks had a 17-7 lead early in the fourth quarter before giving up a pair of big-play touchdowns, a 28-yard scamper by Redskins rookie running back Roy Helu and a 50-yard connection from quarterback Rex Grossman to Anthony Armstrong, that put Washington ahead. Seattle also hurt itself with penalties all throughout the afternoon, being flagged nine times for a total of 91 yards, while triggerman Tarvaris Jackson managed just 144 yards on an off-target 14- of-30 passing.
"We have to just continue to improve on awareness of the situations that we're in and the choices that we make," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said afterward. "We made too many mistakes down the home stretch to finish the game and we couldn't get it done."
The Seahawks had posted consecutive wins prior to that result, following up a 22-17 upset of AFC North co-leader Baltimore on Nov. 13 with a 24-7 road pasting of St. Louis in Week 11.
Philadelphia begins a stretch of back-to-back away tilts and sports a 3-2 record as the visitor this season, as well as a stellar 35-14 mark in December over Reid's first 12 years as head coach. The Eagles have gone 10-2 during the month over the past three seasons.
Philadelphia has a 7-5 edge in the all-time series between these teams and bested the Seahawks by a 26-7 count in the most recent meeting, which took place at CenturyLink Field in 2008. That verdict marked the sixth straight time the visiting team had come out on top in this set. Seattle registered a 42-0 rout of the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in 2005 as well as a 28-24 road decision in 2007, with Philadelphia prevailing in trips to the Emerald City in both 2001 (27-3) and 2002 (27-20). The Seahawks began the string of road wins with a 38-0 shellacking at Veterans Stadium in 1998.
Reid owns a 3-2 career record against Seattle, with all three wins coming on the road, while Carroll lost in his only previous clash with both the Eagles and Reid as a head coach. That occurred in Reid's first season in Philadelphia in 1999, when the Eagles notched a 24-9 home triumph.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia enters the week third in the NFL in total offense (420.1 ypg) and piled up 466 total yards on the Patriots last week, though that number is a bit misleading. A good chunk of Young's career-best 400 passing yards in that game came late with the outcome already essentially decided, and the Eagles were able to convert 4-of-13 third-down opportunities on the day. Young (658 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) did orchestrate a long touchdown drive in the final minutes to upend the Giants back in Week 11, however, and has shown he can be a suitable substitute for Vick in his two starts this year. The former Titans' first-round pick is aided by a strong ground game that's averaged an impressive 159.4 rushing yards per week (2nd overall), though playmaking back LeSean McCoy (1050 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 13 total TD) had just 10 carries for 31 yards last Sunday with coordinator Marty Mornhinweg opting to attack New England's shaky defense more through the air. The third-year standout does have five 100-yard rushing outputs on the season, however, as well as a league-best 13 touchdowns. With leading receiver Jeremy Maclin likely out for a third straight game due to hamstring and shoulder woes, young reserve Riley Cooper (8 receptions, 1 TD) has worked alongside dangerous speedster DeSean Jackson (39 receptions, 2 TD) and slot specialist Jason Avant (43 receptions, 1 TD) in Philadelphia's three-wide sets, with trusty tight end Brent Celek (42 receptions, 2 TD) an important part of the game plan as well. Avant had the biggest day in the New England loss, hauling in eight Young passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles may be hard-pressed to match their usual rushing production against a Seattle defense that's been one of the league's sternest against the run. With two excellent anchors up front in nose tackle Brandon Mebane (36 tackles) and oversized end Red Bryant (23 tackles, 1 sack), the Seahawks are yielding just 3.5 yards per carry on the season, though the group was touched for 108 yards on 23 attempts by Helu last week. A bigger issue for Seattle has been trying to find a consistent complement to ex-Eagle Chris Clemons (30 tackles, 8 sacks) in the pass-rushing department, as the team has accumulated only 20 sacks thus far and generated little pressure on Grossman in Week 11. As a result, a young secondary featuring CFL import Brandon Browner (39 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) and raw rookie Richard Sherman (35 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) at the corners and a pair of second-year safeties in Kam Chancellor (63 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and leading tackler Earl Thomas (73 tackles, 1 INT) was burned for 306 net passing yards and two scores.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle has hardly been explosive on this side of the ball, having amassed the third-fewest total yards (294.1 ypg) in the NFL and ranking just 26th overall in points scored (16.8 ypg). The unit has had a recent bright spot, however, as running back Marshawn Lynch (706 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 7 total TD) has ripped off three 100-yard rushing efforts over the past four weeks and scored a touchdown for a seventh straight game as part of a 111-yard, 24-carry outburst against the Redskins. His re-emergence has helped ease the burden on the often- erratic Tarvaris Jackson (2065 passing yards, 9 TD, 12 INT) as well as a makeshift front line that's lost rookie starters James Carpenter and John Moffitt to season-ending knee injuries within the past month and has allowed 36 sacks, the second-highest amount in the league. There's injury concerns among the receiving corps as well, with highly-skilled wideout Sidney Rice almost certain to sit out this contest after suffering a concussion in Sunday's loss. His absence makes rookie surprise Doug Baldwin (37 receptions, 2 TD) Jackson's main target, with career reserve Ben Obomanu (28 receptions, 2 TD) an uninspiring second option for the NFL's 25th-rated passing offense (196.4 ypg). Seattle stands just 27th in rushing yards (97.7 ypg), but has averaged a much- improved 132.8 yards per game on the ground over the last four games.
While the Seahawks have gotten better running the football as the season's gone along, the Eagles have been far more proficient at stopping it as of late. After being gashed for an average of 140.2 rushing yards over the first five games, Philadelphia has held the opposition to a scant 85.3 yards per game via the ground through its last six outings. A reshuffling at the linebacker positions has helped trigger the team's upgrade in that area, with second-year pro Jamar Chaney (68 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) solidifying the middle and rookie Brian Rolle (37 tackles) acquitting himself well when elevated to a starting spot on the weakside. The Eagles' strength on defense is their ability to pressure the passer, with offseason additions Jason Babin (29 tackles, 10 sacks) and Cullen Jenkins (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks) combining with two-time Pro Bowl end Trent Cole (25 tackles, 5 sacks) to form an outstanding trio that have been responsible for most of the crew's 30 sacks. A big-name secondary that was ravaged by Brady and Patriots receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch last week should be in better shape for this matchup, with decorated cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (25 tackles, 3 INT) slated for an increase in snaps after playing sparingly against New England due to a knee injury and nickel back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (20 tackles, 1 sack) a possibility to return from a two-game absence caused by an ankle sprain.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Be ready. The Eagles have never lost a Thursday night game in three previous scenarios under Reid, though having to take a cross-country trip on a short week is a potential pitfall they'll have to deal with. The quick turnaround may not do Seattle any favors either when considering the error-filled display they put forth on Sunday, meaning Carroll and his staff will have a limited time frame to correct the penalties and missed assignments that doomed the Seahawks against Washington.
Stop the run. The Seahawks have made Lynch the focal point of the offense, with the workhorse back having received over 100 carries over the past four weeks, while the Eagles are 4-1 in the five games McCoy has eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season. Containing him is essential to Seattle's chances of winning, as the Seahawks are 0-6 when allowing over 90 rushing yards and 4-1 when keeping its opponent below that number.
The Philadelphia defense. When the Eagles play well on the defensive side, they've usually come out a winner this season. Philadelphia has held three teams under 300 total yards in 2011 and emerged victorious every time, and they'll be facing a foe that averages less than that mark for the season. If the Eagles can bottle up Lynch and subject the spotty Tarvaris Jackson to their formidable pass rush, that would appear to be a foolproof formula for success.
These two teams have been emblematic of the unpredictable nature of this NFL season. The Eagles possess significantly more proven talent than the Seahawks and seem to have several matchup advantages they can exploit, but that's also been the case in a few other games that have wound up as losses during their underachieving campaign. Previous wins over playoff contenders such as Baltimore and the New York Giants serve as evidence that Seattle can't be dismissed, but the Seahawks are going to have to deliver a far more crisp effort than the mistake-prone one they had just a few days ago. With Young now a bit more comfortable operating the offense and Reid's track record in late- season games -- not to mention the fact that Philadelphia is playing for its playoff lives -- the Eagles should have the edge on a Seattle squad with considerably less firepower than the opponent they took on last week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 20, Seahawks 14