NFL Preview - New England (7-3) at Philadelphia (4-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Vince Young was able to come to the rescue of the Philadelphia Eagles with their playoff lives essentially hanging in the balance last week. The team may have to call upon its emergency quarterback once again as it attempts to keep its postseason dreams alive.
Young is expected to start in place of the still-hobbled Michael Vick when the Eagles host the AFC East-leading New England Patriots Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in an important late-November clash of clubs that both harbored Super Bowl aspirations heading into this season.
The Eagles' prospects of getting there remain on shaky ground even after last week's 17-10 ousting of the rival New York Giants on the road, but the critical victory kept the defending NFC East champions in the hunt heading into the season's final six weeks. Philadelphia enters Sunday's tilt trailing surging Dallas by 2 1/2 games for first place in the division and is behind Detroit by the same margin in the race for the conference's final Wild Card berth.
"It's a great win and all of that, but we need to keep it going," Eagles defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said of last Sunday's result. "We have New England next and we have to play with the same energy."
The Patriots are in significantly better position after posting impressive wins in each of their last two outings following a rare two-game losing streak. Monday's 34-3 rout of injury-riddled Kansas City extended New England's advantage in the AFC East to two games over Buffalo and the New York Jets, whom the Pats pinned a 37-16 defeat upon in Week 10.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes to standout tight end Rob Gronkowski against the Chiefs and a maligned New England defense intercepted Kansas City stand-in Tyler Palko three times while yielding its lowest scoring output of the year.
The Patriots are still last in the NFL in both total defense (404.2 ypg) and pass defense (298.9 ypg) as they head into a matchup against a Philadelphia offense that proved to be capable this past Sunday even without both Vick and valuable wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Though Young showed considerable rust early on in his first start in nearly a full calendar year, throwing three interceptions over the first three quarters in last week's contest, the offseason pickup came through in crunch time by skillfully orchestrating an 18-play, 80-yard drive capped by a short touchdown pass to wide receiver Riley Cooper that broke a 10-10 deadlock with 2:45 remaining.
Young also connected with ex-Giant Steve Smith for a score earlier in the evening and finished with 258 yards on 23-of-36 passing.
"Stepping in for the great Michael Vick, that's a tough thing to do and he did it and the guys rallied around him," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said of Young. "The offensive line had a huge challenge when it counted and they were able to put some things together."
Vick has still yet to practice since sustaining two fractured ribs during Philadelphia's 21-17 loss to Arizona in Week 10, the team's fourth in five bouts at Lincoln Financial Field this season, and will likely be listed as doubtful for the game. Maclin, bothered by both a strained hamstring and a shoulder sprain, could sit out a second straight week as well with his injuries.
The Eagles were hit with another potentially significant player loss when cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha hurt his left knee in Thursday's practice session, putting his status for Sunday's test in question. Fellow corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is already out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain.
Philadelphia has a 6-4 advantage in its overall regular-season series with New England, but the Patriots have won the last two games in the set and came through with a 31-28 home triumph over the Eagles en route to a 16-0 campaign in 2007. New England also cruised to a 31-10 victory in its lone previous appearance at Lincoln Financial Field, which took place in 2003. Philadelphia's last win over the Patriots came in Reid's debut season in 1999, a 24-9 decision at Veterans Stadium on Dec. 19 of that year.
The most famous meeting between the teams occurred in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, a 24-21 New England win that concluded the 2004 season.
Including the Super Bowl win, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick owns a 3-0 lifetime record against the Eagles, while Reid has gone 1-3 against New England during his tenure in Philadelphia and has never beaten Belichick in three head- to-head encounters.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England comes into Sunday's clash as the NFL's third-highest scoring team (29.3 ypg) and stands second overall in both total offense (426.7 ypg) and passing yards (315.7 ypg). As usual, the Patriots' potent attack is centered around the accurate right arm of Brady (3266 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT), whose two scoring strikes to Gronkowski (56 receptions, 805 yards, 10 TD) on Monday placed him in a second-place tie for the most by a quarterback this season at the start of the week, and the two-time league MVP has thrown for at least two touchdowns in all but one game in 2011. Super slot man Wes Welker (74 receptions, 1028 yards, 6 TD), the NFL's current leader in both receptions and receiving yards, remains the go-to guy in the passing game, but last week's win showed the Pats can still operate effectively even when he's not much of a factor. With the Chiefs holding Welker to just 22 yards on two catches, Gronkowski stepped to the forefront by making four grabs totaling 96 yards, and both he and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez (41 receptions, 5 TD) have been Brady's preferred targets inside the red zone. The duo has amassed an astounding 31 touchdown catches in their two professional seasons, with Gronkowski reaching double digits in both years. New England is just 15th in rushing (111.0 ypg) but put up 157 yards on the ground against Kansas City, with primary running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (541 rushing yards, 5 TD) doing most of the damage.
The Eagles may be short-handed in the secondary at a very inopportune time considering New England's deep pool of pass catchers, with the injuries to the four-time All-Pro Asomugha (24 tackles, 3 INT) and Rodgers-Cromartie leaving seldom-used special-teamer Brandon Hughes and nickel defender Joselio Hanson (15 tackles) as the top options alongside playmaking ex-Patriot Asante Samuel (29 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) at cornerback. Fortunately for Philadelphia, it has a strong group of pass rushers in accomplished ends Jason Babin (26 tackles, 10 sacks) and Trent Cole (25 tackles, 5 sacks) and Jenkins (27 tackles, 5.5 sacks) to help out. The trio has accounted for 20 1/2 of the team's respectable season total of 29 sacks, with Babin reaching double-digits for the second straight year after notching one against the Giants. The Eagles have still allowed 18 touchdowns through the air thus far, and defending the run was an issue for coordinator Juan Castillo's group early on. They've been much better in that area as of late, however, having held the opposition under 90 rushing yards in four of the last five games and limiting the Giants to a scant 29 yards on 17 attempts last week.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia currently ranks third in the NFL in total offense (415.5 ypg) and has displayed enviable balance this season, with the club atop the league in rushing yards (168.0 ypg) in addition to averaging nearly 250 yards per game throwing the ball. With Young (258 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) in line to make a second straight start, Reid figures to rely heavily on the talents of running back LeSean McCoy (1019 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 12 total TD) once again on Sunday. The third-year pro leads all players in rushing yards and has scored 12 touchdowns in a breakthrough campaign, and eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in 2011 with a 23-carry, 113-yard effort against the Giants. With Maclin unable to go last week, Cooper stepped up to haul in five passes for a career-best 75 yards as Young's favorite receiver and tight end Brent Celek (37 receptions, 2 TD) added six catches for 60 yards, with both preventing New York from focusing its attention on big-play wideout DeSean Jackson (35 receptions, 2 TD). The dangerous speedster still managed 88 yards on six grabs in last Sunday's big win, his highest totals since a six-catch, 171-yard outburst against San Francisco in Week 4. McCoy and steady slot receiver Jason Avant (35 receptions) provide two other quality options for Young, who owns a 31-17 career record as a starter over his six seasons.
Though New England has surrendered league highs in both total yards (404.2 ypg) and passing yards (298.9 ypg), its defense has kept its last three foes under the 400-yard mark and forced eight turnovers over that span. The Patriots have garnered 15 interceptions over their 10 games, tied with Buffalo for the most in the AFC, and crafty cornerback Kyle Arrington (50 tackles, 10 PD) now has an NFL-best seven this season after picking off Palko twice in Monday's rout. Ends Andre Carter (44 tackles, 9 sacks) and Mark Anderson (16 tackles, 7 sacks) have also made an impact in pressuring the quarterback as of late, with the former racking up a franchise-record four sacks in the Week 10 win over the Jets and Anderson compiling 1 1/2 against the Chiefs on Monday. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (49 tackles) added 11 tackles in the Kansas City game and along with counterpart Rob Ninkovich (48 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT) and three-time Pro Bowl tackle Vince Wilfork (29 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT), is one of the anchors of a unit that's 12th overall against the run (105.3 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Patriots seem to have a clear advantage in the passing game due to its strength at wide receiver and tight end and Philadelphia's concerning situation in the secondary because of injuries. The Eagles will need to combat those possible losses in the back end by getting consistent pressure from their excellent front line, otherwise Brady should have little difficulty picking the defense apart.
Young's performance under center will certainly have a say in Sunday's outcome as well. If the athletic backup plays like he did during last week's game- winning drive for a full 60 minutes, the Eagles will be in pretty good shape. A three-interception repeat would put Philadelphia in a very tough spot, however, against a New England team that rarely beats itself with mistakes.
Finishing strong. The Patriots have overcome slow starts in each of their last two wins by dominating the second half in both games, outscoring the Jets and Chiefs by a combined 48-7 margin after intermission. On the other hand, Philadelphia's problems late in games have been well-documented. The Eagles have been outscored 81-34 in the fourth quarter this season and have blown a final-period lead in five of their six losses, and that number would have reached six if not for Young's late heroics last week.
There's little question that the Patriots have been the more consistent team among these two playoff hopefuls, and they're also the healthier one as well. Though Young was tremendous in the closing moments of last week's pivotal win, he also turned the ball over three times, and the Eagles will be hard-pressed to beat a usually-efficient New England squad if their quarterback is making costly mistakes. Philadelphia's injuries in the secondary may be even more troubling, however, as the Patriots are one of the best in the business at exploiting their opponent's weak spots. Even playing at home doesn't seem to be an edge for the Eagles, who've lost seven of their last eight games at Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia does have a whole lot to play for here considering its position in the standings, but the Eagles have been too erratic and injury-plagued to recommend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Eagles 20
11/25 09:50:10 ET