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Eagles clinch a playoff berth with their win over the Niners by Lloyd Vance

In their 27-14 playoff-clinching win, the Eagles’ defense harassed Niners QB Alex Smith all-day

Snow-filled Lincoln Financial Field became a winter wonderland for the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday.  By virtue of their 27-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Eagles have made the playoffs for the 8th time under head coach Andy Reid.  By no means was the win — their 5th straight — perfect for the Eagles. 

After storming out to a 20-3 halftime lead fueled by some bad mistakes by the visitors — four Niners’ turnovers in the first half – things got interesting in the second half for both teams.  But in the end, the experience of the Eagles overcame the youth and vigor of the overmatched and inconsistent Niners. 

Too often, the Niners were their own worst enemy in a game where they had fought extremely hard to get back into in the second half.  There was a bad fumble at the Eagles’ 8-yard line by TE Delanie Walker after a punishing hit by CB Sheldon Brown that saved Reid the indignation of explaining why he unsuccessfully went for it on 4th and 1 at his own 29-yard line. But the number one culprit in the Niners’ demise was inconsistent quarterback Alex Smith. 

The former first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft was tentative in the pocket (3 sacks), floated passes, and forced passes into coverage that became turnovers.  “Alex did not have his best performance,” Singletary said. “I thought that Alex played poorly. He knows that. He’s capable of playing better than that. Sometimes you try to make things happen and you force it. As a quarterback, you’ve got to learn you can’t force it.”

After a terrible first half, Smith (20/37, 177 YDS, 1 TD, and 3 INT) did have his moments including throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to WR Josh Morgan that cut the Eagles’ lead to 20-13 in the 3rd quarter.  However Smith and Niners’ 27th ranked offense were stifled over and over by an Eagles unit that is looking playoff-ready. 

Though RB Frank Gore rushed 16 times for 107 yards, which snapped the Eagles’ 23-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the Birds were able to get off the field when it mattered most (Niners were 0-11 on third downs).  The Eagles effectiveness on 3rd downs and their great effort in causing 4 turnovers, including CB Asante Samuel’s 8th interception of the season, were defensive keys to victory – allowed only 261 net total yards.

On offense, the Eagles had balance (33 passes and 36 rushes), but it was the play of explosive receiver DeSean Jackson that showed their strength.  On a day where QB Donovan McNabb’s numbers (21-36, 306 yds, 1 TD, and 2 INTs with an 8-yard touchdown run) were better than his play at times, Jackson showed why he is garnering Pro Bowl consideration.   

Jackson continued to show his big-play ability producing six catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. The former 2008 second-round pick now has 1,087 yards this season, becoming only the third Eagles receiver under Andy Reid to reach 1,000 yards in receptions (Terrell Owens and Kevin Curtis). Also Jackson’s 19-yard touchdown catch was his first score under 35 yards this season.

Though the win solidified their playoff spot and their defense played well, the Eagles were still a little sloppy and have some areas to tweak in the coming weeks. 

1)      McNabb needs to get sharper and not force passes into Jackson

2)      Reid cannot take chances deep in his own territory

3)       FB Leonard Weaver cannot waste valuable time jawing with the opposition like he did at the end of the first half (lost 5 to 6 seconds on a drive that could have been a touchdown)

4)      The Eagles offense cannot rely on the big play so much

5)      Defense has to do a better job stopping the run.

6)      More pressure from their front four other than DE Trent Cole (2 sacks versus the Niners, giving him 11.5 for the season)

7) Figure out how much of a contribution RB Brian Westbrook (concussions) and backup QB Michael Vick (thigh bruise) are going to make

The Birds need to focus and treat their next two upcoming opponents like playoff match-ups — Denver Broncos (WK 16) and at the Dallas Cowboys (WK 17).  There is still a chance for the Eagles to catch the suddenly struggling Vikings for the NFC’s 2nd playoff spot (playoff bye).  But more importantly, the Cowboys are breathing down the Eagles’ necks in the race for the NFC East division. 

Did I mention that their next opponent, the Denver Broncos, will be coming to town with former Eagles legend safety Brian Dawkins?  Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of the challenge of facing Dawkins, “He’s going to bring a lot of energy, and we’ve got to match that energy.”

The good thing for Philadelphia is that playoff-tested veterans on the team like McNabb, Brown, and Samuel know that getting into the playoffs is just the first hurdle (no locker room celebrations at the Linc on Sunday) on a long trek back to the Super Bowl.  All-in-all the possibility of a 12-win season and securing a spot in the playoffs after earlier missteps, like losing to the Raiders (Week 6), must feel like one big present under Eagles fans’ Christmas Trees.    

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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