Top 5 reasons for optimism and concern as Eagles enter playoffs

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Top 5 reasons for optimism and concern as Eagles enter playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Eagles are in a very good position as they enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

No doubt.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the Eagles have a 48% chance to make it to the Super Bowl and a 20% chance to win the whole thing. Their 48% chance to make it to Phoenix is likely a result of the weaker NFC but it’s the highest in the NFL.

So there are a ton of reasons to be optimistic as the 14-3 Eagles head into the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy and it doesn’t mean there aren’t some legitimate concerns too.

With that in mind, here are five reasons for optimism and concern as we wait to find out the Eagles’ opponent in the NFC divisional round:

Reasons for optimism

1. No. 1 seed

Just having the top seed in the conference gives the Eagles a great advantage, an advantage they earned in the regular season. Sure, the Eagles finished with a 1-2 record in the final three games of the regular season but they built up such a big lead because of how good they were all year. And in that larger sample size they were clearly the best team in the NFC.

There are some pretty obvious benefits to being the top seed. First, there’s no chance to get upset in the wild card round. While the Eagles would have been a favorite if they had to play this weekend, there’s always a chance they could lose and that’s a chance the higher-seeded 49ers, Vikings and Buccaneers have to deal with this weekend.

And it’s a big deal from a health perspective. Not only will the Eagles be able to use this week to heal up, but they also won’t have to incur the risk of injuring players in an additional game. Even if the teams that are favored win this week, those players are at risk of injury and go through more wear and tear.

While neither of the top seeds made the Super Bowl last year, over 50% of No. 1 seeds have made it to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years.

2. They’re relatively healthy

You’ll see some injury concerns if you scroll down, but the Eagles are pretty darn healthy as they enter the playoffs, even before getting an extra week to rest. On offense, it seems likely that the Eagles will have all 11 opening day starters in their divisional round game. And there’s a chance they will have 10 of 11 defensive starters.

Think about some of those years under Doug Pederson and how banged up those teams were heading into the postseason. And now zoom out and realize that they are about to enter these playoffs with 21 of 22 starters on the field. The one guy who probably won’t play in the divisional round is nickel cornerback Avonte Maddox.

3. This is a balanced team

The Eagles finished the regular season with a top-five offense and a top-five defense. The Eagles ranked third in offensive yards per game, averaging 389.1. And they finished second in yards allowed per game, averaging 301.5.

Even if you acknowledge that simply looking at yards might not be the most comprehensive way to evaluate both sides of the ball, that’s still pretty impressive. And the only other team in the top five in both categories this season is the 49ers (1st on defense, 5th in yards).

Here’s a look at where every other NFC team ranks:

No. 3 Vikings: (7th on offense, 31st on defense)
No. 4 Buccaneers: (15th on offense, 9th on defense)
No. 5 Cowboys: (11th on offense, 12th on defense)
No. 6 Giants: (18th on offense, 25th on defense)
No. 7 Seahawks: (13th on offense, 26th on defense)

4. So many weapons on offense

The Eagles are stacked on offense and have so many playmakers who are great problem solvers. That starts with the quarterback. Jalen Hurts was an MVP candidate for a reason and his ability in both the pass and run game really separates him. We saw a little too much what he means to this team when Gardner Minshew went 0-2 in his two starts.

But it goes beyond Hurts.

The Eagles also have A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert and Miles Sanders as their top skill guys to go along with one of the best offensive lines in football. While scheme obviously plays a role in their success, there are just some times when great players make great plays. And if you have A.J. Brown in a big moment, my money’s on him.

5. No one can stop this D-line

The Eagles have a ton of great talent on their defense. And we really shouldn’t overlook that secondary, which boasts an impressive trio of cornerbacks entering the postseason with Darius Slay, James Bradberry and now C.J. Gardner-Johnson. But this defensive line has been the star of the show.

And even when they weren’t dragging down opposing QBs, they were still piling up pressures that oftentimes turned into stops or turnovers.

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They posted a franchise record 70 sacks and had 15 more than the next closest team. Haason Reddick (16), Javon Hargrave (11), Josh Sweat (11) and Brandon Graham (11) all hit double digits and Fletcher Cox pitched in 7 and Milton Williams 4. Then you still have guys like Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, Jordan Davis and Robert Quinn coming off the bench. That’s a really formidable unit in the playoffs.

Concerns

1. Jalen Hurts’ health

In Week 18, Hurts had to play through pain and you give him a ton of credit for doing it. The Eagles really needed to lock up the No. 1 seed. But even after an extra week of rest, it’s fair to wonder how healthy Hurts will be for the Eagles’ first playoff game. It’s probably safe to say he won’t be 100% … but how close? And how much will it affect him?

Because it didn’t look like that shoulder sprain really affect Hurts as a passer too much but it definitely altered the game plan against the Giants and pretty much eliminated the threat of his running ability. While Hurts was really good in the pocket this year, his ability to create with his legs — and just the threat of that ability — is what makes him special. The Eagles have to call those zone-read plays and have to be willing to expose Hurts to at least some hits in the playoffs. And we’re just not sure how he’ll hold up.

2. Lane Johnson’s health

Yeah, above we mentioned that the Eagles will have all 11 offensive starters on the field but Johnson (groin) is going to attempt to play through a torn adductor. No one will ever question Johnson’s toughness but this would be pretty incredible. Even if Johnson plays, he likely won’t be the same version that has been arguably the best tackle in football all season. But if he can give them 80%, he’s still a better option than Jack Driscoll. And that’s not a shot at Driscoll; that’s just how good Johnson is.

But we’ll see if Johnson can really last through a three-game season in the playoffs. If not, then Driscoll needs to be ready. It’s obvious that Johnson is important to the Eagles and a big reason aside from the obvious is that the Eagles really leave their two tackles on islands quite often. They don’t give much help and that gives a boost in numbers elsewhere. The Eagles will be hesitant to give Driscoll help but if they have to play the Cowboys and Johnson can’t finish a game, you’d see Driscoll out there against DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons. That’s a scary recipe.

3. Turnover differential has turned

Through the first seven games of the season, the Eagles had a turnover differential of +14 and it seemed unlikely that would continue. There was some regression to the mean and the Eagles over their final 10 games were -6.

The Eagles still ended up ranked third in the NFL in turnover differential with a final of +8 but it would be a good time to turn the tide again.

Early in the season, the Eagles were great in this category and talked a ton about the work that goes into it. It wasn’t fluky, they claimed; they were protecting the football and prioritizing taking it away. Some of that is true. But some of it is luck too.

The Eagles have had three games over the second half of the season with a turnover differential of -2 or worse. One of those games in the playoffs could be a season-ender.

4. Offensive stumbles down the stretch

It’s hard to know exactly how much stock to put into this one but against the Saints in Week 17 and against the Giants in Week 18, the Eagles’ offense simply didn’t look right. They had just 313 yards against the Saints with Gardner Minshew, putting up just 10 points. And against the Giants, they had 284 yards of offense with a hurting Hurts and put up 22. The Eagles entered Week 18 with the best red zone offense in the NFL and then went 1-for-5 inside the 20 against the Giants. A lot of that seemingly had to do with the absence of Hurts in the running game, but like we said above, we don’t know how healthy he’ll be in the playoffs.

You can explain away these two bad performances by saying the Eagles really didn’t have their MVP candidate quarterback in either of them. But play calling was rough and the offense never got into a rhythm. I’m not a huge believer in momentum heading into the playoffs but it’s better to have it than not.

5. They’ll see good QBs in the playoffs

The Eagles can obviously only play the teams on their schedule, but here’s a reminder of the QBs they beat in 2022: Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, Trevor Lawrence (in the rain), Kyler Murray, Cooper Rush, Kenny Pickett, Davis Mills, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Daniel Jones, Justin Fields, Davis Webb. They will not see a Davis in the playoffs.

The Eagles will likely play good quarterbacks and offenses in the playoffs and the fear with this defense is that those good quarterbacks will happily march their teams up and down the field on Jonathan Gannon’s defense. Gannon’s scheme is mostly predicated on keeping everything in front of them, while getting off the field on third downs and forcing turnovers. But if the Eagles can’t get off the field, it becomes a problem.

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