The measure of Sunday's game will be how long it takes Denver to huff and puff and destroy the house of sticks, and how many of the sticks can still be salvaged afterward. That's where the useful loss part of the equation comes in.
There is a lot that can be gained for Chip Kelly and the Eagles if they are able to avoid embarrassment for most of the afternoon and, particularly, if they are able to still be effective in the fourth quarter. Factoring in the quality of the opponent, the demands of Kelly's methods, and the thin air of Denver, how the Eagles play in that final period might be the determining factor in whether this is a useful loss or just a stinker.
The most obvious overall challenge, of course, belongs to the defense, which is tasked with slowing a Broncos offense that has compiled historic success in its first three games. Manning's 12 touchdown passes is an NFL record. The 127 points scored by Denver in the first three games is the second-highest total in league history. And on and on.
At the end of Monday night's destruction of Oakland - Manning completed 32 of 37 passes in that surgical strike - Denver's three running backs claimed to have played rock, paper, scissors to see which would get the touchdown carry on a goal-to-go possession. It was all for laughs and the Broncos are getting used to having laughers. Coach John Fox wasn't amused. "We decide that, not them," he said.
Against the Eagles, whose defense has been playing rock, paper, oatmeal this season, there is the possibility, maybe even the probability, of a mismatch of epic proportions. Manning has completed 73 percent of his passes so far and the Eagles have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67 percent of their attempts. Both of these numbers are way too high to continue, but there is little to suggest the leveling off will occur Sunday in Denver.
The Eagles' main problems have been easily identified. They don't get pressure on the quarterback and they don't cover receivers very well. That's a bad combination. It figures they will try to be more aggressive up front against the Broncos, but if Manning initially keeps his tight ends and running backs at home to create the illusion of max protection, which he likes to do, that opens up a lot of options once the outside linebackers read the situation and take a step forward. The Eagles are suckers for misdirection and ill-staffed to deal with eligible receivers who delay a beat before releasing into their routes. Those are precisely the defensive lapses that Manning eats for breakfast.
On the other side, the Eagles should score some points. They are second only to Denver in net yards per game and the under-and-over weaponry of LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson makes them dangerous, particularly if Michael Vick is playing wisely and not trying to make every snap a highlight.
It still comes back to the fourth quarter, however, in terms of further convincing the locker room that Kelly's philosophy will hold up in the NFL. They know what he is attempting isn't a gimmick. But it sure would be nice to get some positive reinforcement, particularly in as dire a spot as they find themselves on Sunday.
In the short sample of three games, the Eagles have outscored the opposition in each of the opening three quarters. In the fourth quarter, however, they have been outscored by 36-17 and both the offense and the defense have been slipshod. The Eagles have defended eight fourth-quarter drives in which the opposition was trying to move the ball. Five of those drives went at least 50 yards, and they surrendered scores on seven of them - three field goals and four touchdowns. That's awful.
By comparison, the offense has had nine fourth-quarter drives in which it tried to move the ball. The Eagles gained at least 50 yards on three of those, scored three times, and had three turnovers. Not as bad perhaps, but not exactly Kelly's vision of his super-conditioned, superefficient team running the other guys ragged at the end.
To improve their fourth-quarter performance against a team like the Broncos - which has won a franchise-record 14 straight regular-season games and almost always wins the final period - would really mean something. It would mean the Eagles could get back on the airplane with a useful loss that indicated progress.
Sorry, but that's the best they can do.