WILDCARD CRYSTAL BALL - PART 2: Can Philly Rebound?
Eagles, Sirianni face Bucs with their backs against the wall
My friends, what a difference seven weeks makes.
Presidential candidates emerge from obscurity, THE GURU adds weight like a super-savings account compounds interest and a football team’s season slips from its grasp.
Indeed, just 49 days ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were flying as high as their name suggests. A 10-1 record. The likely top seed in the National Football Conference. An impressive nine-game run that included wins over six eventual playoff teams: Dallas, Kansas City, Buffalo, Miami, the Rams and Tampa Bay.
The Birds and their fans were on top of the world and then San Fran came to town, drubbing the home team to the tune of 42-19. Next were road losses to Dallas and Seattle, followed by a narrow win against the Giants. Then 3-12 Arizona visited the Linc and rallied from a 15-point deficit to take down the Eagles in brutal fashion before the regular season culminated with a not-so-merciful loss to the Giants.
What started out as a magical year turned into a full-blown tailspin.
So, as Philadelphia (11-6, 5-4 away) visits NFC South champion Tampa Bay (9-8, 4-4 home) tomorrow evening, the question must be asked: Can the Eagles right the ship in the postseason?
There is certainly plenty of reason to doubt a turnaround. Star receiver A.J. Brown is out against the Bucs and stud safety Reed Blankenship will be a game-time decision. Jalen Hurts is averaging just 170 passing yards a game in his past eight outings. And, worst of all, the Philly defense has become a sieve that could strain enough pasta to feed FATBACK and yours truly1 for a month.
Nick Sirianni & Co. are also facing a hot Tampa team that closed the regular season with five wins in six games, including an impressive mid-December win in Green Bay over the surging Packers. Baker Mayfield has this offense humming and the defense only allowed 16 points an outing during the season-ending 5-1 stretch.
Still, the Birds have one major thing going for them this weekend: they’re playing the Bucs on the road and not in front of the fit-to-be-tied Philadelphia fans. And that, in my view, is a big deal.
While I don’t buy into the longstanding narrative that Philly fans are awful across the board, they are as quick to turn on their team as any group this side of Julius Caesar’s one-time pals. And that means it’s best for the Eagles to be on the road on the Ides of January.
These teams don’t meet often but, when they do, memorable things happen. Tampa beating the Eagles in 1979 to advance to the first NFC Championship game in team history. Philly’s Ricky Watters saying “For who? For what?” when asked why he alligator-armed a pass2 from Randall Cunningham in his Birds’ debut. Bucs corner Ronde Barber shutting down Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium with a 95-yard pick-six in the 2002 NFC Championship game, sending Tampa to the Super Bowl.
When Barber intercepted that pass, I told my devastated pal TOMMY BIRD that I felt like the instant winner of 10 Super Bowls as, by all accounts, you could hear a pin drop at the Vet. Oh baby, it tasted like the finest chicken at a Michelin-star restaurant.
That was Andy Reid’s fourth season as Philadelphia’s head coach and the second of four straight appearances that he and the Iggles would make in the NFC title game. Though the fan base was devastated by the Tampa loss, the coach was on firm ground and just getting started on his outstanding 13-year run with the Birds.
Like circa 2002 Reid, Sirianni is early in his tenure with the Eagles, just completing his third season. Past six weeks aside, he is off to a great start with a sparkling 34-17 (.667) regular-season record that gives him the #1 winning percentage of any head coach in franchise history. That’s right.
He’s also already seventh in team annals in victories and, with 10 wins next season, would move up to fourth place, trailing only Reid (130 wins), my man Greasy Neale3 (63) and Dick Vermeil (54). That’s some rarified air.
Still, somehow, plenty of Birds fans believe Sirianni is on the hot seat, a notion that is silly to me. The man is a terrific head coach and to judge him on one six-week stretch borders on absurd. But, that’s Philadelphia for you.
When the game kicks off Monday at 8:15 pm ET on ESPN/ESPN+/ABC, I expect the Eagles to play with great effort and fight like mad with their backs against the wall. I’ve been thinking “Bucs” all week but am reversing field. Eagles, 27-24.
Eagles (25-25); Bucs (11-11)
Hurts (2-2); Mayfield (1-1)
Sirianni (2-2); Todd Bowles (0-1)
4:30 PM, FOX
Packers (9-8, 4-5 away) at Cowboys (12-5, 8-0 home)
When I think Green Bay-Dallas in the postseason, two games immediately come to mind. First, of course, is the so-called Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship game where Vince Lombardi’s Packers vanquished Tom Landry’s Cowboys, 21-17, on the game’s final play. The contest, of course, was played in sub-zero temperatures, back in a day when the game was defined by the toughness of its players.
My second memory comes from the 1995 NFC Championship game when Packers wide receiver coach Gil Haskell hit his head on the hard Texas Stadium sideline after he was trucked by a pair of players. He fractured his skull and was unresponsive for five minutes. Fortunately, he recovered and was back on the sidelines the following season as Green Bay won the Super Bowl. Haskell stayed in the NFL through 2012.
That ‘95 Packers team was an upstart, a term that’s probably an apt description of the 2023 Green Bay squad as well. I think they’ll come to play but don’t see a win against the Cowboys. Call it Dallas, 29-19.
Packers (36-25); Cowboys (36-30)5
Jordan Love (0-0); Dak Prescott (2-4)
Matt LaFleur (2-3); Mike McCarthy (11-10)
8 PM, NBC
Rams (10-7, 5-4 away) at Lions (12-5, 6-2 home)
It’s funny how things come full circle, isn’t it? In January 2021, the Lions sent one of their all-time great quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford, to the Rams in exchange for LA QB Jared Goff and three draft choices. LA won the Super Bowl in Stafford’s first year with the team but, in the long run, the deal is paying dividends for the Motor City as well.
The Lions parlayed the aforementioned picks into more draft choices through trades and ended up with likely long-term starters at tight end (Sam LaPorta), safety (Ifeatu Melifonwu) and running back (Jahmyr Gibbs). Plus, they drafted Alabama wideout Jameson Williams, a receiver who was, ahem, bottled up early this season due to a gambling suspension. He’ll be a player down the line.
But, despite all of the good folks above, I see the key matchup happening on the line as stalwart Dee-troit center Frank Ragnow and his mates are tasked with containing all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald and star rookie DT Kobie Turner. As Lions head coach Dan Campbell acknowledges, it won’t be an easy task.
I expect the Lions to well but I just think the visitors will play a little better. LaPorta’s recent knee injury concerns me and Sean McVay’s playoff experience could also be a factor. This one goes down to the nub and I’ll say LA, 27-25.
Rams (26-27); Lions (7-13)
Stafford (4-3); Goff (2-3)
McVay (7-3); Campbell (0-0)
4:30 PM, CBS
Steelers (10-7, 5-3 away) at Bills (11-6, 7-2 home)
This rust-belt matchup was originally slated for Sunday but was moved due to snow-related travel concerns. More importantly, it gives Bills Mafia another 27 hours to get juiced up for the game. As if that were necessary.
This is the fourth playoff matchup between the two teams but the first since January 1996 when coach Bill Cowher and Pittsburgh throttled Buffalo, 40-21. Of course, that was a long time ago - heck, I still had some brown hair - and that outcome doesn’t matter today.
This game will be played in frigid temperatures with plenty of snow on the field but that shouldn’t cool off the red-hot Bills, winners of five straight games. Coach Sean McDermott has the team on a roll and they’re a squad no one wants to face at this point.
On the flip side, Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin are highly motivated as the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2016 season and is on a four-game postseason losing streak. And, as always, it’s tough to pick against him.
In the end, I’m going with Buffalo for two reasons: they’re at home and they’ve got Josh Allen, a man who been thriving in the elements since his days at the University of Wyoming. Simply put, he’s built for this and I think he’ll deliver on Monday. Let’s say Bills, 24-16.
Steelers (36-27); Bills (18-20)
Mason Rudolph (0-0); Allen (4-4)
Tomlin (8-9); McDermott (4-5)
That’s all for this weekend, folks. Stay tuned for next week’s Divisional Round predictions and enjoy the games!
Hobbs and I were known to take down a carb or two during our 2 1/2 years together at Lehigh and, frankly, nothing edible was safe during our stint in Bethlehem. Like your author, my boy can devour some food, and no one is more creative when it came to gluttony.
I marveled at his collegiate ability to pull a hodgepodge of cans from the pantry to build a gastronomic treat to feed his ample physique. Give the man a pot, some butter, a package of mac and cheese and a can of tuna or green beans and a magic act was sure to transpire.
Watters short-armed the pass on September 3, 1995, which happened to be the wedding day of one TOMMY BIRD. The reception was on the grounds of the hotel where I was staying, and I vividly recall shuttling excitedly from my room to the ballroom to let my friend know how badly things were going for his football team.
Later in the evening, he said “GURU, it’s great to marry the love of my life and I’m excited about the future. But I can’t get over the fact that I lost to a bad Tampa Bay team today.”
A silver lining for my buddy: the Bucs finished 7-9 while the Birds rebounded to end the year at 10-6, even winning a playoff game with a 58-37 decimation of coach Wayne Fontes and the Lions.
I’ve written several times about Neale, actually as recently as Week 13, as I’m an admirer of the man. He famously co-coached the Steagles - the combination of the Steelers and Eagles - in 1943 and, most improbably, led tiny Washington & Jefferson to the Rose Bowl in 1921, playing heavily favored Cal to a scoreless tie. W&J’s current head coach: Nick Sirianni’s older brother Mike, winner of 81% of his games in 21 seasons at the school.
Neale also coached the Eagles to the 1948 and 1949 NFL titles and, as a player, won the 1919 World Series when his Cincinnati Reds beat the infamous Chicago White Sox i.e., the Black Sox. He permanently resides in the College Football Hall of Fame and in Canton.
Thanks to the good folks at Wikipedia and Pro Football Reference for all of the postseason record data. Easy to find and easy to use.