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If Philadelphia Eagles fans are going through the stages of grief after Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury, eventually they’ll land on acceptance. And then, maybe, hope.
Losing a quarterback who had a shot to win the NFL MVP award isn’t good for a team’s Super Bowl hopes. But the Eagles aren’t finished just because Nick Foles is taking the reins. There are some legitimate reasons to believe this story could still have a great ending:
The schedule allows Foles to settle in and could let the Eagles get a No. 1 seed
The biggest edge the Eagles have is obvious: They already have 11 wins. That leads the NFC. They’re a game ahead of the Vikings and two ahead of the Saints and Rams. A lot would have to go wrong for the Eagles to blow a first-round bye, and a No. 1 seed is still there for the taking. The Eagles’ final three games: at the Giants, vs. Oakland, vs. Dallas. All of those games are winnable, even with Foles. The Cowboys game is the toughest, but if Minnesota stumbles in the next two weeks and the Eagles win a couple, Week 17 won’t matter.
The importance of a No. 1 seed is obvious. No matter who is quarterbacking the Eagles, if they only need two home wins to get to a Super Bowl, they would have to like their chances.
Foles isn’t that bad
Here are the quarterbacks who make up the top-10 single-season passer ratings of all time: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and … Foles. That’s five players who are in the Hall of Fame or guaranteed to get there, a pair of four-time Pro Bowlers in Ryan and Romo, and … Foles.
Foles’ 2013 season goes down as perhaps the biggest fluke in NFL history, and you can certainly argue about the viability of passer rating when it comes to judging quarterbacks. Foles hasn’t done much since. But there’s no question Foles was fantastic that season. He had 27 touchdowns and two interceptions. He started a playoff game that season, and played well (195 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions for a 105 rating). Being in a big spot is not foreign to him, and neither is an extended run of success. Many teams have awful backup quarterbacks. Foles might not be the quarterback we saw in 2013, but he’s competent. He might not need to be more than that because …
The Eagles weren’t a one-man team
Wentz was great this season. But the Eagles were well stocked around him. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, before last week the Eagles ranked fourth in offense, third in defense and 10th in special teams. The offensive rating was boosted by Wentz, but the Eagles are second in the NFL in rushing and tied for third in the NFL at 4.6 yards per attempt. They’re deep at running back and have good options at receiver and tight end for Foles.
The NFC is deep but there’s no unbeatable opponent waiting for the Eagles
The Saints and Vikings each lost in Week 14. The Rams couldn’t come back to beat the Eagles after Wentz’s injury. The Panthers’ offense struggles at times because Carolina doesn’t have many dangerous targets in the passing game. The Seahawks have dealt with their own major injuries on defense. The Falcons have been in a season-long malaise. Heck, why would you say the Eagles can’t win with Foles when their top competition might be the Vikings and Case Keenum? The Eagles aren’t as good as they were without Wentz, but is there a team in the NFC they couldn’t beat, especially if they get home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs?
Teams have won big with injury replacements before
There are more examples of injury replacements at quarterback going deep in the playoffs than you’d expect: Earl Morrall with the 1972 Dolphins, Jim Plunkett with the 1980 Raiders, Doug Williams with the 1987 Redskins, Kurt Warner with the 1999 Rams, Tom Brady with the 2001 Patriots, Colin Kaepernick with the 2012 49ers are the main examples. All of them got their shots due to injury, and nobody expected any of those teams to end their seasons in a Super Bowl. All of those teams at least made a Super Bowl, and Plunkett, Williams, Warner and Brady started in a Super Bowl win.
The best comparison, however, might be Jeff Hostetler. Phil SImms was a Super Bowl champion and a very good quarterback who was playing well in 1990 when he broke a bone in his foot. The Giants were 11-3 when they turned to Hostetler, an unremarkable backup. Hostetler was mostly a caretaker for a team that relied on its defense and running game, but he did his job. Hostetler didn’t throw an interception in his five starts, and had five touchdowns. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV with him at quarterback.
The truth is that of the 51 Super Bowls, more than a few were won by average or below-average quarterbacks. Foles wouldn’t be the worst of that lot, by a long shot.
The Eagles’ chances of winning the NFC, and maybe even winning their first Super Bowl title, took a huge hit when Wentz tore his ACL. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But those chances didn’t evaporate entirely. Maybe it’s just a different kind of dream season than the Eagles fans were envisioning.
Here are the power rankings following Week 14 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-13, Last week: 32)
I can’t believe the Browns blew Sunday’s game. Actually, never mind — I absolutely can believe it. That seemed like their shot to avoid 0-16, and they blew a 21-7 lead. On the bright side, what receiver Josh Gordon is doing three years after playing his last game is amazing. Don’t kid yourself, it’s not easy to be that good that fast after three years off.
31. New York Giants (2-11, LW: 31)
Why was Steve Spagnuolo so conservative? He punted twice in Cowboys territory (fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 37 and a fourth-and-5 at the Cowboys’ 46 trailing by a touchdown with less than five minutes left — and also on fourth-and-2 at their own 45, a fourth-and-2 at their own 48 and a fourth-and-5 at their 45). What does an interim coach for a 2-11 team have to lose? Playing to not lose with an awful team isn’t going to blow away any future employers.
30. Indianapolis Colts (3-10, LW: 28)
Frank Gore logging a career high in carries might not be the best thing for him at age 34, but what a player he is. There will be plenty of debates about Gore’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame, but there are few running backs who were tougher than Gore. Here’s what Gore said about the workload, according to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star: “I think I’m showing people if you love what you do, it doesn’t matter what age you are. Once you turn 28 as a back they think you getting old. I’ve been hearing since I was 28 I was gonna fall off.”
29. Houston Texans (4-9, LW: 26)
DeAndre Hopkins’ ability to keep producing with the quarterbacks he has played with is amazing. Even though the Texans are terrible now, Hopkins helps keep them in games. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the best receiver in football (that’s Antonio Brown) but he’s unbelievable too.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9, LW: 25)
Doug Martin has been bad all season. Peyton Barber was coming off a good game. Still, the Buccaneers gave Martin 10 carries (for 26 yards), while Barber had 58 yards on 12 carries. Maybe wasting some of those carries on Martin cost the Bucs in a three-point loss. It’s another example of how this Bucs coaching staff seems incapable of making any right decisions.
27. San Francisco 49ers (3-10, LW: 30)
The only problem with Jimmy Garoppolo playing this well is his price tag for the offseason continues to grow. The 49ers still have the franchise tag though. You have to assume the undying stories of the 49ers pining away for Kirk Cousins are done now, but who knows.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8, LW: 21)
It’s hard to envision Marvin Lewis coming back in 2018. This isn’t a situation where the team just wants to play out his contract. Lewis’ deal is done at the end of the season. If the rest of the season looks like Sunday’s debacle, the fans would revolt if Lewis returned.
25. Chicago Bears (4-9, LW: 29)
If you’ve been watching the Bears and not just scanning the box score, Sunday’s performance by Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t a surprise. He’s a very talented player. The numbers aren’t there for reasons out of his control, but I find it hard to believe people who have actually watched him play already think he might be a bust. The Bears have something here, they just need to add pieces around him, and Trubisky needs to commit to continued growth and development.
24. New York Jets (4-9, LW: 23)
Josh McCown is done for the season, and it’s Bryce Petty taking over as the starter. If Christian Hackenberg doesn’t get any playing time over the rest of this lost season, that is your clearest sign that he’s one of the worst draft picks in team history. According to Newsday, there have been 20 quarterbacks drafted in the second round since 2000, and Hackenberg is the only one who has never appeared in a game. The Jets should be excited by this point for the chance to see what Hackenberg has, and they’ll start Petty instead.
23. Denver Broncos (4-9, LW: 27)
I’m not going to say Vance Joseph saved his job with that win, but it couldn’t have hurt. Finally the Broncos looked like a competent NFL team, and have another winnable game this week at Indianapolis. It’s not too late to get some positive momentum toward 2018.
22. Washington Redskins (5-8, LW: 19)
Safety D.J. Swearinger probably didn’t make any friends on the coaching staff when he said the Redskins had “blah” practices and he has “been saying it all year” that the team needed to prepare better. This is a pretty eye-opening quote: “It’s not surprising at all to me. At all. If you don’t prepare well, you’re gonna fail. I don’t think we prepare well. … And it’s all of us, players and coaches.” It’s harsh, but a window into what ails Washington.
21. Oakland Raiders (6-7, LW: 17)
There are going to be tough questions this offseason. Do the Raiders move on from offensive coordinator Todd Downing after just one season, and make Derek Carr start over with yet another coordinator? Is head coach Jack Del Rio safe? Do the Raiders try to make minor tweaks, knowing they are just a season removed from posting a very good record, or look at 2017 as the more accurate barometer of where they are as a team and make big changes? It’s a difficult spot they’re in.
20. Arizona Cardinals (6-7, LW: 22)
Linebacker Josh Bynes has been a fun story for the Cardinals. He had an unremarkable first six seasons with the Lions and Ravens as an undrafted player, but has found a home in Arizona. Coach Bruce Arians raved about him last week, and he made a huge interception in a win on Sunday.
19. Miami Dolphins (6-7, LW: 24)
You’d be hard pressed to find a better game played by a cornerback this season than Xavien Howard played against the Patriots.
18. Tennessee Titans (8-5, LW: 13)
I’m stunned by Marcus Mariota’s regression. He seemed to have set a reasonable floor for his play during his first two seasons, but in his third season he has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. I’m also amazed this team is still in good shape in the playoff race. They’re not good.
17. Buffalo Bills (7-6, LW: 18)
The 34-yard overtime catch by Deonte Thompson, given the circumstances, was one of the best of the season. If that happens on a 70-degree day in September we might not even look twice, but in that blizzard it was amazing. If the Bills can rally to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season, that catch will be a major reason.
16. Detroit Lions (7-6, LW: 16)
It appears the Lions benched running back Ameer Abdullah last week. In a league where many teams have little trouble finding quality low-cost options at running back, the Lions somehow can’t find anyone capable of running for 100 yards in a game.
15. Green Bay Packers (7-6, LW: 20)
While the Aaron Rodgers return seems inevitable (assuming he’s medically cleared, as Mike McCarthy made sure to point out), I’m not sure it’s the best move. It’s a great story, but are the Packers really a playoff contender? They need to win out and still get some help. And every time Rodgers gets hit from here on out, the Packers will be very nervous. You’d hate to see a quick return lead to another collarbone injury and have that affect Rodgers in 2018. (The Packers were moved up a few spots in anticipation of Rodgers’ return, not because they squeezed out a win against the Browns.)
14. Kansas City Chiefs (7-6, LW: 15)
Forget the collapse after the 5-0 start — the Chiefs are very likely to win the AFC West if they beat the Chargers at home this week in a rare Saturday night game. Nothing else matters. Also, after the Chiefs defense played very well without suspended cornerback Marcus Peters last week, are we sure the Chiefs are better off just reinstating Peters to his normal role this week?
13. Dallas Cowboys (7-6, LW: 14)
With some really good Week 15 games, it’s amazing that Cowboys-Raiders wasn’t flexed out of the Sunday night spot. I understand the ratings draw of the Cowboys trumps all for the NFL, but it’s still a weird and nearsighted decision to grab a few extra Cowboys fans as a minor ratings boost rather than put out the best possible product for viewers.
12. Baltimore Ravens (7-6, LW: 11)
Of all the teams I’ve seen play in my life, the 2017 Ravens had to be one of the least likely to play a 39-38 game. But the offense has shown some good signs, mostly thanks to Alex Collins’ emergence. On the other hand, the defense really missed standout cornerback Jimmy Smith, and he’s done for the season.
11. Atlanta Falcons (8-5, LW: 12)
Linebacker Deion Jones’ interception might have saved the Falcons’ season. Dan Quinn made a really bad decision to decline a holding penalty late in the game after a stop on third-and-1, and the Saints converted on fourth-and-1. Had the Saints won after that coaching decision, effectively knocking the Falcons out of the wild-card race? Whew. Quinn should give Jones a big hug for bailing him out (and Matt Ryan, who was terrible on Thursday night, should give Jones some love for getting him off the hook too).
10. Seattle Seahawks (8-5, LW: 7)
Michael Bennett is a fantastic player and his personality is refreshing in a league that takes itself way too seriously most of the time. But you can’t pull a Greg Schiano and take shots at opponents during victory formation. It’s bush league.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (7-6, LW: 10)
If the Chargers win Saturday, they’ll be in great shape to win the AFC West. If they don’t? They’ll be 7-7 and in some trouble. They’d have to win their final two to have any shot, and it still would be tough to get in. It’s hard to see a 9-7 Chargers team passing the Ravens (who have a very easy remaining schedule). The Titans could bottom out the rest of the way and maybe that’s the Chargers’ chance to get a wild-card spot, but the Titans somehow already have eight wins and just need to fall forward over the finish line. If the Chargers miss the playoffs, the rest of the AFC postseason field will be thrilled. What a huge game on Saturday night.
8. Carolina Panthers (9-4, LW: 9)
Cam Newton made two plays that very few NFL quarterbacks could make. His touchdown pass to Devin Funchess, when he avoided a sack and threw a strike while fading backward, was astounding.
And his 62-yard run that turned the game back in the Panthers’ favor was fantastic. A man that big shouldn’t’ be able to move so well that he leaves safety Andrew Sendejo grasping for air like he did.
The Panthers are not the prettiest team, but in many games their quarterback is the best player on the field. That always gives them a chance.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4, LW: 8)
The Jaguars are getting close to making sure their Week 17 rematch with the Titans doesn’t matter. If the Titans are within a game going into the final week, that contest will determine the division title. But the Jaguars lead by a game now, and the Titans could open the door for the Jaguars to clinch early if they trip up in the next two weeks.
6. New Orleans Saints (9-4, LW: 6)
We’ve sung Drew Brees’ praises often in this space, but he can’t get a pass for that interception last week. He forced a throw that was picked off by Deion Jones with the Saints in range to kick a game-tying field goal. It was a terrible mistake. That loss could loom large in the playoff picture.
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-4, LW: 5)
The Rams have been the story of the division for so long this season, this might have escaped you: If the Seahawks beat the Rams at home on Sunday, they’ll move into a tie with Los Angeles for first place and own the tiebreaker with two games to go. It would be disheartening for the Rams to lead the division for most of this season and lose it in the end to the Seahawks. They’ll need a great effort on Sunday to avoid that.
4. Minnesota Vikings (10-3, LW: 4)
Nobody wants to see an injury, of course. However, the team that benefits the most from Carson Wentz’s torn ACL is this one. The Eagles would have likely won out against that remaining schedule with Wentz, but perhaps if Foles stumbles the Vikings can steal the No. 1 seed. And while the Vikings defense is very good and might have beaten Wentz anyway, the most obvious statement of the season is the Vikings would rather see Nick Foles in January than Wentz. The NFC has some tough teams and it won’t be easy, but there’s a possibility we’ll finally see a team play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (11-2, LW: 2)
One of the NFL’s big stories this offseason will be if Carson Wentz can make it back for the 2018 season opener. In comments to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, Dr. James Andrews warned that players need 9-12 months to return from ACL surgery. And the Eagles won’t want to ruin Wentz by rushing him back, and everyone will cite Robert Griffin III rushing back from a torn ACL. It will be a tricky situation for the Eagles. (I had no idea where to rank the Eagles. You could have them No. 1 based on what they’ve done or move them way down because now you’re dealing with a team that doesn’t have its best player anymore. We’ll have to see what they look like with Nick Foles. Nobody knows for sure.)
2. New England Patriots (10-3, LW: 1)
Nothing went right on Monday night. Bill Belichick scoffed at a question asking if his team was looking ahead to the Steelers game in Week 15, but it’s a legitimate question. And it’s OK if they were looking ahead. I don’t think the loss should affect the way anyone views the Patriots, who hadn’t lost since Oct. 1. Monday’s defeat at Miami doesn’t matter if the Patriots win at Pittsburgh next week.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2, LW: 3)
For many reasons, I don’t think Antonio Brown will win MVP, starting with the fact that the last time a wide receiver got a single MVP vote was 1998. Voters want to give the award to a quarterback, and they work their way back from there. That said, Brown would be a deserving winner. It would be fun if the voters broke from their quarterback-only mindset to consider him.
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