3TFO: Bears @ Eagles, Week 16
Since the NFL realigned in 2002, teams that win 10 games have qualified for the playoffs 86% of the time. Once again in 2013 it appears that 10 wins will be what it takes to make the postseason for both the Bears and Eagles. Chicago will travel to Philadelphia this week in a game featuring two 8-6 teams trying to hang onto first place in their respective divisions for the final two weeks of the season.
Chicago comes in on a two-game winning streak and one week after their starting quarterback returned from injury, it is likely that the leader of their defense will return this week. Linebacker Lance Briggs is on schedule to return to help a defense that has missed him tremendously. A win this week would set up a potential division championship game next week in Chicago against the Packers and put the Bears in the driver’s seat for the three seed in the NFC, but the Eagles have a lot on the line too and the contest will likely come down to a few big plays.
Philadelphia had their five-game winning streak snapped last week, when they lost in Minnesota against an undermanned Vikings team. Minnesota shredded the Eagles’ defense and beat them quite convincingly, bringing back concerns from earlier in the season about the defense, especially the secondary. They need to move on from the poor performance because a Dallas loss to Washington during the early Sunday games would give the Eagles an opportunity to clinch the division Sunday night, but if the Cowboys win the two teams will meet in Week 17 for the NFC East crown. The game will have a playoff feel, and the team that performs best in these three areas will position themselves for a home playoff game.
Brandon Marshall & Alshon Jeffery vs. Cary Williams & Bradley Fletcher
There is little remaining doubt as to what team has the best receiving duo in the league this year. Chicago wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have separated themselves from the pack and have been a nightmare for defenses to defend. Marshall has the highest overall grade of all wide receivers at +36.6, more than 14 points higher than Calvin Johnson who ranks second. Part of Marshall’s freakishly high grade is that he has established himself as the best blocking receiver in football, a major sign of maturity and team emphasis that Marshall has displayed this year.
Another example of Marshall’s team-first attitude is the way he has taken Alshon Jeffery under his wing and mentored the young star. Jeffery has broken out in a big way this year; he is averaging 2.37 Yards per Route Run which is the fifth-highest in the NFL. Marshall isn’t too far behind on that list with 2.19 YPRR ranking him 10th. Marshall and Jeffery are both dynamic deep threats adding pressure to the defense at all times. They have both hauled in 12 deep passes, the fourth-most of any receiver and the most by a duo. Their unique size and ability is nearly impossible to stop, especially when the cornerbacks trying to stop them are coming off a poor performance that surely hurt their confidence.
Coming into the season, the big concern for the Eagles was how the revamped secondary would hold up. After a rocky start, they seemed to come together and played well during the winning streak, but that ended last week when Matt Cassel gashed them for 382 yards. The cornerback tandem of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher will need to be far better this week against a much stiffer opponent if the Eagles have any chance at containing Marshall and Jeffery.
Williams and Fletcher have had very similar seasons; they have both allowed a reception every 9.8 snaps that they are in coverage for, ranking them 52nd in the NFL. If Philadelphia tries to leave their corners in off coverage to prevent long throws down the field, then there will be an opportunity for Chicago to throw quick wide receiver screens. Williams has the seventh-most missed tackles among cornerbacks in the NFL and Marshall has caused the 10th-most missed tackles among wide receivers. All signs point towards a big day for Marshall and Jeffery, but the Eagles’ secondary has turned in many surprising performances this season and might be up to the challenge.
Bears Run Defense vs. LeSean McCoy
In the loss last week to the Vikings, running back LeSean McCoy had only eight rushing attempts. Some of that was due to Philadelphia trailing big for most of the game, but McCoy, who leads the NFL in rushing, has requested more carries this week and the Eagles would be foolish not to oblige. If the Eagles give him a chance, McCoy can have a career day against the Bears who have given up the most rushing yards in the league so far this season. The good news for Chicago is that Lance Briggs should be available and he will help immensely.
Briggs will be the only Bears’ defender with a positive run defense grade that has played more than 300 snaps this season active for the game. Briggs hasn’t played since week seven so he might be rusty, but he ranks third among 4-3 outside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage and should get some help from newcomer Jeremiah Ratliff. Ratliff has only played three games this season, but has made two stops in the run game each of the last two weeks, showing flashes of his old self.
McCoy is unstoppable at times though; just ask the Lions who McCoy gouged two weeks ago in the blizzard. He is the highest-graded overall running back and his 51 forced missed tackles are the fourth-most in the league. His rare ability to make people miss makes him a threat to go the distance each time he touches the ball as he has 19 runs of 15 yards or more, the most in the league. He has 654 yards after contact and rarely takes a direct hit. The forgotten part of McCoy’s game that makes him the complete back is his ability out of the backfield. His 508 receiving yards is fifth-most among running backs. He wants to put the Eagles’ offense on his back and if they let him, he just might carry them into the playoffs.
The journey for starting quarterback Nick Foles has been quite interesting this year. He has now made eight starts for the Eagles and there is enough data to delve into. Despite becoming a bit of a media darling with some impressive statistics, Foles has had three consecutive negatively-graded games and has gotten away with some dangerous throws. However, he does have a solid grasp of the offense and can certainly make all of the throws needed to put up big numbers. The best way to rattle Foles, like many quarterbacks is pressure. His QB rating drops from 132.9 when not pressured to 78.0 when facing pressure.
The problem for Chicago is that they have struggled to generate any pressure most of the year, and have a team pass rush grade of -26.7, third-worst in the league. Even defensive end Julius Peppers has failed to make an impact this season. He is currently ranked 28th among 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rush Productivity, generating six sacks and 35 total pressures on 387 pass rushing opportunities. The Eagles’ offensive line is exceptional at run blocking, but average protecting the passer. They rank 15th in the NFL as a unit, with 164 total pressures surrendered on the season. If Foles has time to throw, he will certainly capitalize and provide a few big plays that the Eagles are known for, though if Chicago can generate pressure he might make a few costly mistakes.
Follow John on Twitter.