The Philadelphia Eagles are as real as they come.
That much was clear in their Denver Broncos two weeks earlier.in Jerry Jones' house on Sunday. The win, after all, a victory that sent the Birds to 4-0 in the NFC East and 7-0 in the conference, was hardly the team's most complete performance. To think that the Eagles throttled Dallas by four touchdowns after trailing 9-7 at halftime is to think, with momentum from the get-go, Philadelphia may very well have dropped 50 on the 'Boys as they did the
And yet, in an age where football "analytics" can muddy something as plain as whether a team, you know, looks like it's playing good football, boasting a 9-1 record atop the NFL isn't a surefire recipe for respect.
No worries in Philadelphia, where the Eagles keep chugging along, squashing all those "trap games" and perpetually postponing their biggest detractors' favorite catchphrase: "Just wait. This is the week we'll find out if they're for real."
News flash: They are.
Is it too early to crown the Eagles playoff victors, something they haven't been since 2008? Yes, a million times over. But calling the Eagles what they are -- the NFL's best team -- is not premature. It's reality.
Here are the three biggest reasons that's the case:
The rise of Carson Wentz (and plenty of others)
It all starts with this. The hype for the second-year gunslinger was real when Wentz was just a first-year gunslinger, but now, it'd be a massive understatement to suggest No. 11 has come into his own in Year Two. In addition to just the poise and potential of his whirlwind rookie campaign, Wentz is showcasing an elite ability to extend plays, make decisions and lead his team -- all the stuff you'd expect from a former No. 2 overall draft pick and this season's.
He's passing the "eye test" by a mile. (Have you seen even a sliver of an Eagles game lately?) And anyone finding fault in his All-Pro emergence on the stat sheet -- his 25:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio or his league-leading third-down efficiency -- is nitpicking for narratives. Save for maybe some first-half hiccups against the 49ers and Cowboys, both of whom fell to Philly by more than 20 points, there are simply no grounds for overlooking what Wentz is and has become in the City of Brotherly Love: A bona fide franchise quarterback with all the tools, all the moxie and -- now -- all the production you could ask for.
A lot of the tired debate over whether Wentz or Dallas' Dak Prescott is the superior second-year NFC East quarterback (hint: on Sunday, it was Wentz by the longest of long shots) is predicated on how much help each signal-caller has gotten from his respective team. It's chicken-or-the-egg stuff -- does the offense make the quarterback, or does the quarterback make the offense? But none of it is mutually exclusive. Prescott, after all, isn't totally inept just because he looked painfully helpless without a star left tackle and running back on Sunday. And Wentz isn't just a beneficiary of a better supporting cast because he's utilizing his weapons at an incredible pace. (Friendly reminder that the Eagles have also lost their left tackle and running back.)
Wentz, however, isn't the only one who's risen to -- and above -- the occasion in 2017. Perhaps, in a sense, as the centerpiece of the team, his elevation has equated to the elevation of all. But there's no hiding the fact that countless other Eagles have stepped up alongside their man under center.
There's Nelson Agholor, a former first-rounder left for dead who's quietly become the team's most dangerous big-play threat. There's Jay Ajayi, the Miami Dolphins castoff who's left Adam Gase criticisms in the dust with his 11.2 yards per carry. There's Corey Clement, an undrafted Darren Sproles fill-in who's done nothing but score six touchdowns out of the backfield. There's Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a second-year tackle who's kept Wentz clean in place of injured future Hall of Famer Jason Peters. There's the trio of Trey Burton, Brent Celek and Mack Hollins, unheralded reserves who've together constituted something like a steady No. 3 receiver behind the likes of Pro Bowl-bound starters like Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. And that's just the offense.
Jim Schwartz's takeaway-happy (and depth-tested) D
If you somehow forgot that Jim Schwartz is running the Eagles defense, you should at least remember that his unit thrives on takeaways. That's because, if you've watched Philly at all in 2017, you've probably seen turnovers forced. In all but one of their first 10 contests (the lone game they lost), the Birds have stolen possession of the ball, and their plus-10 turnover differential ranks second in the NFL behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose defense might actually be the sole reason they appear competent even in a largely incompetent AFC South. Those kind of numbers, coupled with the low turnover output of Wentz on the other side of the ball, make for championship-level contention.
Schwartz's unit finished in the league's top 10 in takeaways in 2016, so it's not like the Eagles are just suddenly stumbling upon awkward bounces. But what's more dangerous than the possibility that high turnover rates are a byproduct of good Schwartz scheming is the fact that the Eagles' defense is far better than it was a year ago despite being bruised and battered at every level.
Pro Bowl anchor Fletcher Cox is on the field now, but he missed time, and starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, a criminally underrated big-play machine, has missed a whole lot more on Injured Reserve. Big-name cornerback Ronald Darby, the Eagles' big preseason catch in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, also went down for nine weeks, teaming up with second-round pick Sidney Jones on the sidelines as the premier, albeit ailing, future pillars of the secondary.
And what have the Eagles done in their absence? Only picked off 14 passes, forced six fumbles, surrendered the seventh fewest yards per game and stuffed opposing backfields as the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense. Teams haven't struggled getting into the teens and the 20s on the scoreboard against the Eagles, but Philly's defense has never outright broken in 2017, and that's a miracle in and of itself considering Hicks and Darby went down, leaving one year of total pro experience between the starting corners on Opening Day. No, instead, they've thrived, swarming the trenches with Cox, Tim Jernigan and Brandon Graham; containing the middle with Nigel Bradham and a rejuvenated Mychal Kendricks; and attacking at the back end with Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and the ever-confident Jalen Mills.
Depth is somehow in abundance up and down Schwartz's lineup, and the scary thing come playoff time is that the Eagles should be even better. In his first game since Week One, Darby was all over Dez Bryant on Sunday, snagging one of Prescott's three picks. Jones isn't even needed in the secondary -- an impossible thing to suggest just a few months ago -- but might be available. Vinny Curry is still heating up as a run stopper up front. And Patrick Robinson, a fringe journeyman when he joined the team on a prove-it deal over the offseason, is the sturdiest of them all, proving each week to be a pleasant (shutdown) surprise in the slot.
Impeccable management in the locker room -- and above it
Victories can make any locker room rosy, to some extent. A team's culture, after all, can more easily be flaunted when said team is living up to expectations. On the flip side, a team with a bunch of great guys and close teammates but no wins to show for it isn't the best definition of a real team anyway, or at least at the professional level. But if ever there were a time to take into consideration the teamwork -- the unity and the community -- of an NFL team when weighing what made it so special, it is with these Eagles in 2017.
The preseason stories of coach Doug Pedersonsound even more far-fetched 10 weeks into the season, and that's because he's got one tight -- and simultaneously loose -- ship sailing in Philly.
It's tight because, from Wentz's meteoric ascension to Schwartz's opportunistic execution, the Eagles have hardly had a slip-up in the second year of the new regime. Throw away some play-calling in a Week Two loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, get rid of a few drives against San Francisco, and you're only a half-step away from a flawless return to the playoffs. That's right. It's been that convincing.
It's also loose because, LeGarrette Blount is enjoying playing with and for each other. It almost sounds cheesy, but you'd be hard pressed to watch the Eagles year in, year out, and somehow miss the realization that this group, the 2017 Birds, is much different than the rest. Look at . Look at how, time and time again, they've . Look at how much selfless fun they are having while they cruise their way to eight straight wins and a long-awaited postseason berth., this team is playing with such a collective coolness -- an uninterrupted confidence -- that it's hard not to realize how much everyone from Wentz to
It's all a testament to the way the Eagles have been managed. At the end of the day, the Xs and Os and the execution on the field are what make the difference and keep everybody talking. But if Philadelphia is headed as far as it looks to be headed, the deeper roots of 2017's triumphs will be explored, and they lie squarely in the team's foundation -- its administration. That means Pederson, who has cultivated a winning atmosphere and, with his staff, a Godsend of a quarterback, not to mention a roster laced with both talent and humility. And it means player personnel chief Howie Roseman and the Eagles front office, which struck gold on just about every depth-chart addition (see: Ajayi, Jeffery, Jernigan, Robinson) to transform Philly into a legitimate contender at least a year ahead of schedule.