Playoff with Packers will test how far Eagles have come

Eagles receiver Chad Hall can't prevent an interception by the Cowboys' Terence Newman, one of three thrown by Kevin Kolb in a 14-13 loss to end the regular season. Hall and Kolb were among reserves who played so regulars could rest.
Eagles receiver Chad Hall can't prevent an interception by the Cowboys' Terence Newman, one of three thrown by Kevin Kolb in a 14-13 loss to end the regular season. Hall and Kolb were among reserves who played so regulars could rest.
Posted: January 03, 2011

Now we'll see how much has really changed for the Philadelphia Eagles.

On Sunday, they will host the Green Bay Packers - a franchise with which the Eagles share much history, ancient and recent - in a first-round playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.

Fifty years ago, the Eagles beat the Packers for their most recent NFL championship. Four months ago, on a weekend dedicated to celebrating the anniversary of that 1960 team, the Packers defeated the current Eagles and changed the course of their entire season.

It was Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews who knocked Kevin Kolb out, creating the chain of events that led to Michael Vick's rebirth as a franchise quarterback. Now the Packers return with an opportunity to deliver a pass/fail grade to Vick's remarkable season of football redemption.

The matchup is a tough one for the Eagles. The Packers excel at the two things the Eagles have the most trouble dealing with - throwing the football and rushing the passer. But it is a matchup the Eagles brought upon themselves by losing their final two games of the regular season and any shot at a first-round bye.

"This will be our biggest challenge so far this year," wide receiver Jason Avant said.

In between that Green Bay game and this one, Vick and wide receiver DeSean Jackson created a lot of excitement and some unforgettable moments. There was the 59-point explosion at Washington, the 91-yard catch-and-run for the go-ahead touchdown at Dallas, the unprecedented comeback victory against the New York Giants two weeks ago.

With Vick and Jackson running the fastbreak and coach Andy Reid pumping his fists and chest-bumping players, a season of middling expectations blossomed into something fresh and exhilarating. After 11 years of Donovan McNabb, the Eagles were free to soar as never before.

Right?

Not so fast.

A year ago, the McNabb-led Eagles finished with an 11-5 record after an ugly late-season loss that damaged their playoff seeding. This year, for all of Vick's rocket throws and Jackson's thrilling home-run catches, the Eagles finished 10-6. Their ugly loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday trapped them in the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs and set up Sunday's dreadful virtual-exhibition loss to the Cowboys.

Because of that squandered opportunity, the Eagles must beat Green Bay and Chicago, two teams that have defeated them already this season, to get to the NFC championship game.

The cold reality: They must do just that for this season to be considered successful.

Last year, that bad late-season loss and a quick playoff exit prompted Reid to ship McNabb to Washington and bring an era of Eagles football to a close. How would losing to the Packers, at home no less, be any different?

McNabb got the Eagles to the NFC championship game five times, more than half of his healthy seasons. The most recent trip was just two years ago. So that's a pretty reasonable measuring stick for the Vick-led Eagles.

It would be different had Reid stayed with his original plan and used this season to break Kolb into the No. 1 quarterback spot. Once Reid switched to Vick, and the rest of the NFC East teams stumbled into three variations on the theme of failure, the grading curve changed.

Vick is 30 years old. This would be his 10th NFL season if not for the two-year gap he created for himself. It is fair to place the same expectations on him as those on McNabb throughout his career.

It is fair, too, to apply those expectations to Reid. He has the most talented offensive unit of his 12 seasons here. The defense has been a problem, but it was also a problem in the NFC title-game loss two years ago and in that debacle at Dallas last January. So Reid has had two full years to address that side of the ball. The defense was not exactly fearsome before a wave of injuries weakened it even further.

Reid and Vick each have history with the Packers.

The coach, of course, began his NFL coaching career in Green Bay. He earned his Super Bowl ring there. One of the great moments in Reid's tenure with the Eagles, the fourth-and-26 pass from McNabb to Freddie Mitchell, came in a playoff win over the Packers in the 2003 season.

A year earlier, Vick and the Atlanta Falcons shocked the Packers at Lambeau Field in a first-round playoff game.

Because of all that history, from 1960 through September 2010, the Packers are arguably the most intriguing opponent the NFC could have provided the Eagles in this first-round game. They are also one of the toughest.

The Eagles might have avoided this game by taking care of business in two season-ending home games against bad teams.

They didn't.

Now they must face a very good team. Now we'll see if these Eagles really have changed, or if the postseason just brings more of the same.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter: @SheridanScribe. Read his blog at http:// go.philly.com/philabuster or his recent columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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