Though the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins share identical overall records at this stage of the season, the recent results of the two teams couldn't be any more different heading into their Week 14 encounter.
While the revitalized Dolphins enter Sunday's matchup with the Eagles flying high off another impressive win, Philadelphia limps into Sun Life Stadium trying to bounce back once again from a head-scratching loss that's been all too common during a 2011 campaign of unmet expectations.
Pegged as a prime Super Bowl contender following a flurry of high-profile and headline-grabbing offseason moves, the Eagles' chances of even reaching the playoffs have all but vanished after losses in four of their last five outings. The latest defeat, a 31-14 throttling at Seattle on Dec. 1, dropped the defending NFC East champions to 4-8 on the year and placed Philadelphia three games out of a postseason spot with just four to go.
Miami also stands as an extreme long shot to advance to the NFL's second season, but the team has certainly played like it belongs as of late. The Dolphins have registered four victories in five games since an awful 0-7 start and outscored the opposition by an eyebrow-raising 139-54 margin over that span.
The best performance of the bunch may have taken place this past Sunday, when the Dolphins dominated an Oakland Raiders squad that had won three straight times and was leading the AFC West by a 34-14 count at Sun Life Stadium. Miami owned a 34-0 advantage after three quarters and piled up a season-high 209 rushing yards en route to the rout.
"They're doing a great job," Miami head coach Tony Sparano said of his players. "This is a fun group of guys. Not worried about anything that happened before or anything will happen later on. Just worried about what's happening right now."
The Eagles likely aren't feeling as euphoric as their opponent this week due to their rough stretch, but the team did receive some positive news on two key contributors that had been out with injuries. Quarterback Michael Vick is set to return for Sunday's clash after sitting out the last three contests with fractured ribs suffered in a deflating 21-17 home setback to non-contending Arizona on Nov. 13, while top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is also on track to play after missing three straight games as well due a hamstring strain and a sprained shoulder.
"It's been tough watching the last three weeks of football and, you know, watching our team go through their struggles the last two games," said Vick in reference to the Seattle game and Philadelphia's 38-20 ousting by AFC East front-runner New England in Week 12.
Vince Young went 1-2 while running the offense in Vick's absence, but threw eight interceptions over that time period. Four of those picks came in the loss to the Seahawks, with Seattle converting three of them into touchdowns.
The Eagles have turned the ball over a league-high 29 times this season and own a troubling minus-13 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio in their 12 tests. The Dolphins, on the other hand, are plus-four in that department during their five-game surge.
Miami will be seeking a fourth consecutive triumph at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday and has won its last three home bouts by an average of 19.3 points.
The Dolphins hold a 7-5 edge in their all-time series with Philadelphia, but the Eagles have won the last two meetings between the clubs and dealt Miami a 17-7 defeat in the latest encounter, which took place at Lincoln Financial Field in 2007. Philadelphia also came out on top by a 34-27 count in its last visit to Miami, which occurred in 2003 and stands as the Eagles' only victory in six games as the visitor in this set.
Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid has gone 2-1 against Miami during his 13-year tenure with the Eagles, while Sparano will be opposing both Philadelphia and Reid for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Moving the football hasn't been much of a problem for Philadelphia, which ranks third in the NFL in total offense (412.6 ypg) and second overall in rushing yards (157.1 ypg), but turnovers and poor execution in critical spots have doomed the expected contenders all throughout the season. Though those issues were more pronounced in Young's three starts, Vick (2193 passing yards, 11 TD, 11 INT) was having an inconsistent year far unlike his tremendous comeback campaign of 2010 prior to his injury, and the dynamic quarterback will have to shake off the rust after not having taken the field in a month. He'll be aided by the return of Maclin (46 receptions, 4 TD) to a deep receiver corps that also contains big-play specialist DeSean Jackson (43 receptions, 2 TD), who's averaged nearly 18 yards per catch over his four-year career, and the steady tandem of tight end Brent Celek (45 receptions, 2 TD) and slot man Jason Avant (44 receptions, 1 TD). The unit's best player this season has been running back LeSean McCoy (1134 rushing yards, 42 receptions), an exceptional two-way threat who's second in the league in rushing and tops all players with 15 total touchdowns in addition to averaging a robust 5.3 yards per carry. The versatile third-year pro has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in four of Vick's nine starts, while the star signal-caller adds another dangerous dimension to Reid's wide-open offense with his remarkable scrambling ability.
Philadelphia's productive ground attack should face a challenge in a resurgent Miami defense that's been sensational against the run during the team's turnaround. The Dolphins have limited opponents to 85 rushing yards or less in four straight games and shut down a usually-formidable Oakland running game a week ago, with the Raiders mustering a harmless 46 yards on 14 carries. Inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (75 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (72 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) have led the charge for a group that's risen to fifth in the NFL in run defense (93.2 ypg), with the latter also returning an interception for a touchdown in last week's big win. After struggling to force turnovers early on, Miami has come up with seven interceptions over the last four weeks after recording a mere two in the first eight games, and the pass rush has improved as well with esteemed veteran outside linebacker Jason Taylor (10 tackles, 4 sacks) and second-year end Jared Odrick (15 tackles, 4 sacks) both stepping up to provide a necessary complement to 2010 All-Pro Cameron Wake (27 tackles, 6.5 sacks). Of the Dolphins' 28 sacks thus far, 13 have come over the last five contests.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Another element to Miami's second-half success has been the surprisingly solid play of quarterback Matt Moore (1769 passing yards, 9 TD, 5 INT), a former washout in Carolina who was pressed into duty following starter Chad Henne's season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. The ex-Panther is completing nearly 62 percent of his passes for the year and been intercepted just twice over his last seven assignments, with none in the past three games, and the Dolphins are 3-1 at home when he's been under center. Miami's been more a run-oriented team since the switch, however, with offseason acquisition Reggie Bush (667 rushing yards, 35 receptions, 5 total TD) and rookie Daniel Thomas (504 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 1 TD) splitting duties in what's been an effective backfield timeshare. Both players had an impact against the Raiders, with Bush ripping off 100 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts and Thomas adding 73 yards on 13 totes. Moore has thrown for under 200 yards in four of his eight starts, but the 27-year-old has been able to develop a good rapport with big-bodied wide receiver Brandon Marshall (63 receptions, 910 yards, 3 TD) and tight end Anthony Fasano (23 receptions, 4 TD). The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has three 100-yard efforts with Moore at the controls, while Fasano has four touchdown receptions in the past six weeks and is coming off a four-catch, 66- yard display against the Raiders.
Defending the run hasn't been a strong suit of the Eagles this season, though the team had been performing better in that area until being steamrolled by Seattle's Marshawn Lynch in Week 13, with the physical back amassing 148 yards and two scores in a banner 22-carry outburst. Philadelphia had allowed just 85.3 rushing yards over a six-game span prior to that matchup as a young linebacking crew headed up by second-year man Jamar Chaney (80 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) in the middle and rookie Brian Rolle (41 tackles) on the weak side began showing signs of coming together. The strength of highly-scrutinized first-year coordinator Juan Castillo's group has been pressuring the quarterback, with free-agent pickup Jason Babin (31 tackles) having netted an outstanding 12 sacks in 12 games opposite two-time Pro Bowl end Trent Cole (27 tackles, 6 sacks) and fellow offseason addition Cullen Jenkins (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks) has lent a push from his tackle position. A heralded secondary has had trouble living up to its billing, however, with new cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha (26 tackles, 3 INT) and Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie (20 tackles, 1 sack) having battled injuries in addition to taking on unfamiliar roles and an inexperienced safety pool having been a sore spot. The high-priced Asomugha is slated to play this week despite sustaining a concussion against Seattle, while Rodgers- Cromartie may have a chance to return after missing three games with an ankle sprain.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. This has been a major liability for the Eagles this season. They've had three or more giveaways in a game six times in 2011 and won only one of those contests, while they're 2-0 in the two times they've come out ahead in the turnover battle. Conversely, Miami's strong run has been greatly helped by the defense's ability to force mistakes. The Dolphins have gone 3-1 while creating seven takeaways over their last four outings, but had just four in going 1-7 over the first half.
Philadelphia's running game vs. Miami's run defense. The Dolphins have been as good as anyone in defending opposing ground attacks over the last four weeks, having yielded a paltry 58.3 yards per game over that span. An Eagles team that's been held under 100 rushing yards just once this season may be Miami's biggest test to date, however, especially considering the problems the elusive Vick presents as a scrambler.
Red zone defense. This could be prove to be a huge advantage for Miami in a close game. The Dolphins have surrendered touchdowns on just 37.8 percent of red-zone possessions, the fourth-best success rate in the NFL. The Eagles, however, have allowed six points on a league-worst 70.6 percent of such drives, and opponents have cashed in 12-of-16 opportunities against Philly over the last five games.
With their playoff hopes just about cooked, it's hard to pinpoint just how much motivation the Eagles will have in this game. There are no such reservations about the Dolphins, however, as Miami has played with both pride and purpose for five straight weeks even with their postseason fortunes going up in smoke. While Vick's return could bring the boost Philadelphia needs to get back on track, he'll also be facing a defense that's been lights out as of late on a four-week layoff. Simply put, the Eagles have been far too untrustworthy to recommend, especially against an opponent that's been sound in just about all areas in recent weeks.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 20, Eagles 13