Sports

The Debrief, Week 14: Eagles will contend without Carson Wentz



Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 14 to Week 15.

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It was the best week of games all season, it was one of the worst injuries yet. As Chris Wesseling said on the “Around the NFL” podcast Sunday night, these vengeful 2017 Football Gods are clearly from the Old Testament.

Carson Wentz‘s season-ending ACL tear rips apart what was already a wide open NFC by greatly diminishing its best team. But the injury doesn’t remove the Eagles as a Super Bowl contender.

Eagles defensive end Chris Long‘s strip-sack of Rams quarterback Jared Goff on Sunday helped secure a vital win over the Rams, which was made bigger by Wentz’s exit. It also showed why the Eagles — who clinched the NFC East on Sunday — remain likely to win homefield advantage in the playoffs.

Backup quarterback Nick Foles‘ first start of the season will come in New Jersey against the Giants before the Eagles return home to face a sagging Raiders team and close things out against the Cowboys. Philadelphia should be considered favorites in all three games for the same reasons the Eagles were able to close out a quality opponent Sunday in Los Angeles without Wentz. They boast perhaps the NFL’s best defensive line, a strong running game and a creative offensive coaching staff. Foles is a quality veteran backup, familiar with a system that has plenty of run-pass options and is like the one he thrived in under Chip Kelly in 2013, during Foles’ first stint in Philadelphia.

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These are not the 2016 Raiders, a 12-4 squad whose playoff hopes were essentially extinguished by Derek Carr‘s fractured fibula in Week 16. That team and its MVP-caliber quarterback had a weak defense and an ill-prepared backup QB, with a record built via a string of comeback victories. The 11-2 Eagles have blown teams out because Wentz’s brilliance was supported by a top-five defense, excellent offensive-line play and a coaching staff that can adjust on the fly.

Sunday’s win over the Rams, combined with New Orleans’ loss on “Thursday Night Football,” put the Eagles two games up on the NFC’s No. 3 seed (currently the 9-4 Rams, with the 9-4 Saints owning the No. 4 seed). Philadelphia has all but secured a bye and the accompanying home game during the Divisional Round. Three of the top four NFC seeds lost in Week 14, while the Eagles lost Wentz. The No. 1 seed is within reach, especially if the 10-3 Vikings slip up again like they did in their loss to Carolina on Sunday. This is a conference without a superpower, where every playoff team will have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

In a season where Case Keenum is leading a viable Super Bowl contender in Minnesota, where the Saints are winning with running and defense, where the Los Angeles Rams are in the mix, it’s not crazy to suggest a Nick Foles-led Eagles team will be competitive, if not superior, in any home playoff game.

This is not the season football fans envisioned — especially, ultimately, in Philadelphia — but it’s the season those punishing Football Gods have given us.

Wentz’s injury wasn’t the only season-altering development of the week. Here were the other biggest lessons of Week 14:

The Wests can be won in Week 15: The Rams‘ loss to the Eagles changed the trajectory of Los Angeles coach Sean McVay’s next three weeks. Instead of battling for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the team could be battling just to win the NFC West. The Rams can all but end that drama Sunday in Seattle against a banged-up Seahawks team. A win in Seattle would give the Rams a two-game lead in the division with two games to play. A win by the Seahawks would give them a season sweep over the Rams — which means having the tiebreaker advantage — and first place heading into Week 16. (It would also mean the Rams finished 1-4 against the top tier of NFC playoff contenders.)

One week can change so much in the NFL. Seattle’s win over Philadelphia in Week 13 gave the team the look of a title contender again, but Sunday’s loss in Jacksonville coupled with Bobby Wagner‘s hamstring injury puts them on the brink. (Wagner’s campaign for Defensive Player of the Year, like Wentz’s MVP bid, could end prematurely.) The Seahawksneed to beat the Rams; otherwise, they’ll face a steep uphill climb just to make the playoffs.

The AFC West race could be similarly close to wrapping up. Despite their four-game winning streak, the Chargersface a near must-win situation in Kansas City on Saturday night. The Chiefs have a chance to sweep the season series, essentially reducing their magic number to one to win the division with two weeks left. The Chargers are the better team right now, with the better quarterback and the far better defense. But the Chiefsvictory over Oakland on Sunday was a reminder of how much coaching matters, and I’d never count out Andy Reid in a matchup against a rookie head coach.

Antonio Brown has a chance to be the first wide receiver to ever win NFL MVP: This is the season where Brown reached a tier of sports excellence that only immortals have roamed. We expect Brown to come up with something magical, and then it happens. Every week.

His four-week tour across the NFL’s prime-time properties, which concluded on Sunday night, should not soon be forgotten: 39 catches for 627 yards, six touchdowns and three game-defining plays. There was the impossible toe-tap to beat the Packersin Week 12, followed by the tenacious, clutch touchdown against the Bengalsin Week 13, followed by the 34-yard catch to beat the Ravens(again) and win the AFC North(again), a play that was more remarkable because everyone could see it coming.

Tom Brady, the NFL’s leader in passing yards per game, passing yards per attempt and interception percentage, still has my hypothetical MVP vote. But Brown is now a strong No. 2 with three weeks to go. AFC homefield advantage may not be the only thing on the line when the Patriotshead to Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Jacksonville can win with offense: The Jaguars needed a victory like Sunday’s 30-24 win over Seattle: in a home game against a playoff-tested opponent, with Blake Bortles playing a key role. It was the organization’s biggest win in a decade, setting up a chance for Jacksonville to claim the AFC South before heading to Tennessee in Week 17.

Everyone knows the Jaguars‘ pass defense is special, and they delivered for two and a half quarters Sunday, holding Russell Wilson to 36 yards with two interceptions on his first 17 attempts. A funny thing happened, however, when the Jaguars‘ secondary mysteriously collapsed, allowing three touchdown drives of two plays or less: Bortles steadied the ship. While he missed a few throws, he consistently made good decisions and completed some difficult passes for the second straight week. The Jaguars scored 27 points on five straight possessions against the Seahawks, with the final two drives in that stretch taking up more than 13 minutes of playing time. The emergence of talented rookie receiver Dede Westbrook alongside Marqise Lee will make it tougher for teams to keep loading up to stop Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars running game. (Jacksonville still ran for 156 yards against the Seahawks.) Seattle was without linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright late in the game, but it’s worth noting that the Jaguars are now capable of taking advantage of such situations.

When Wilson got the ball back with Seattle down six points and 2:38 to go, I expected him to spin more of his magic. Instead, the Jaguars, keyed by a Malik Jackson sack, didn’t allow a first down. On third-and-11 on the ensuing Jaguars drive, Bortles did the most Jaguars thing possible and handed the ball off. Fournette picked up the first down, a moment that should have been the lasting memory from the win before the Seahawks defense and the Jaguars crowd ruined it. When the Jaguars host their first playoff game since the 1999 postseason next month, they will be able to look back at this win and remember how both sides of the ball came through when it mattered.

The Raiders are who we thought they were: The question is not how the Raiders went from preseason darlings to 6-7. The question is how this team won six games at all with one of the league’s worst defenses and one of the most predictable offenses. The Raiders trailed 26-0 with 10 minutes left in Kansas City on Sunday, having been outflanked in every phase by the Chiefs‘ staff. (It could have easily been 38-0 if not for some Chiefs mistakes in the red zone.)

“We had high hopes heading into today. It was a big day, a big moment, and we didn’t play well,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said after the game.

Derek Carrput it more succinctly.

“There is no easy way to put this one. We sucked,” Carr said.

Del Rio fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. three weeks ago. Del Rio also gambled by replacing veteran offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave after last season, promoting in-house option Todd Downing. Nearly every aspect of the offense has disappointed since, with the exception of Marshawn Lynch‘s tough running. Carr has too often missed seeing open receivers down the field and taken checkdown passes before pressure arrived. The lasting image of Sunday’s game was Carr continuing to throw short passes over the middle while down two scores, a symbol of a season that has been going nowhere fast for a while.

The Packers and Cowboys do their part: Green Bay and Dallas continued to spice up the “in the hunt” part of the NFC playoff picture, as the 2016 Divisional Round opponents barely hung on to postseason hopes with wins over the dregs of the league. If the Cowboys beat the stumbling Raidersnext week, they’ll head into a Christmas Eve matchup against Seattle at 8-6, with Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup. A relevant Week 16 game is better than Cowboys fans could have hoped for a few weeks ago.

The 7-6 Packers are a trickier team to project. They have a weak enough roster to get outplayed for most of their games against the Buccaneers and Browns over the last two weeks. In the first quarter of the season, with Aaron Rodgersin the lineup, the offense failed to top 375 yards in any one game. The road to the playoffs will be difficult for the Packers regardless, without even taking into account the possibility that Rodgers still may not play at all this season.

Over the last week, I’ve seen countless analysts talk about Rodgers’ potential return in Week 15 from a broken collarbone suffered in Week 6 as if it was a fait accompli, as if the Packers‘ medical staff had nothing to do with the decision. Just because Rodgers is eligible to come off injured reserve doesn’t mean doctors will determine his collarbone is strong enough to withstand punishment from 300-pound linemen. Packers coach Mike McCarthy noted Monday that the decision is now in the hands of the doctors, and it has nothing to do with how Rodgers looks in practice wearing a non-contact jersey. Their final determination could go a long way toward shaping these final three weeks of the NFC playoff race, especially for the Packers‘ upcoming opponents: Carolina, Minnesotaand Detroit. Anyone who pretends to know what those doctors will say is speculating, just like anyone foolish enough to attempt to forecast this post-Wentz NFC.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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