Unbelievably, first place within Eagles' reach

Head coach Chip Kelly walks off after the Philadelphia Eagles lose 52-20 to the Denver Broncos.
Head coach Chip Kelly walks off after the Philadelphia Eagles lose 52-20 to the Denver Broncos. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2013

Through very little fault of their own, the Eagles can find themselves in first place in the NFC East by shortly after nightfall on Sunday. This is akin to having the penthouse in a tenement, but just one week after being de-pantsed by Denver, any bit of positive reinforcement would be a welcome change.

Chip Kelly has taken a good look at his team and at its division rivals, however, and he didn't sound as if an Eagles win Sunday, coupled with a Dallas loss to Denver, would do much to change his long-range view of either.

"I called the league office, and I wanted to find out when we get the trophy," Kelly told the Eagles when he met with the full team on Tuesday. Everyone laughed. There are no trophies in October, particularly for teams with losing records. The Eagles have a very long way to go, but fortunately for them, so do the other three teams in the division.

"It doesn't matter if you're in first place in the first week of October," Kelly said. "What matters is, are you in first place after Dec. 29? Let's not waste energy and time on . . . if this happens and this happens and this happens. If they really did give us a trophy after this game, we would really be fired up for it, but, yeah, I was told that's not going to happen."

If the Eagles manage to lose to the Giants on Sunday, Kelly might get the Archie Manning Trophy, but that's about it. Fortunately for the Eagles, that won't happen. One week after playing a game in which it was virtually impossible for them to win, they find themselves with a game that should be very difficult to lose.

It isn't that the Eagles will take the field without the same deficiencies they had against Denver. This is still a football team with huge holes and a good distance to travel before there will be trophies of any kind. But against the Giants, the Eagles will have an opponent that can't readily exploit those deficiencies.

In the game of matchups, the Eagles offense, ranked second overall in the league, figures to run up the score on a depleted New York defense that is allowing points in bunches to far less-potent offenses. Two weeks ago, the Giants lost by 38-0 to Carolina. That's not easy to do. It was the most-lopsided victory in the 18-season history of the Panthers franchise, and it wasn't a fluke made of turnovers and bad bounces. The Giants were that bad.

Eli Manning will likely show some improvement against the Eagles. (Every week, to be honest, we can write that sentence, beginning with, "Insert Quarterback's Name Here . . .".) He probably won't get sacked as often as he has been and won't throw as many interceptions, but the Eagles will play him soft, dare him to construct long drives, and there is little reason to think that will happen in this game.

The Eagles are the better team - at least this week - and might actually be the best team in the division. We'll see. The Eagles got the Redskins at the right time, but that's a decent enough team, and the Cowboys are their usual mysterious blend of promise and pratfall. In the season opener, Dallas needed a five-turnover advantage to beat the Giants by five points.

There hasn't been a single win by an NFC East team (and there have been only four of them total in four weeks) against an opponent with a winning record. That will also be true after five weeks unless the Cowboys can surprise the Broncos Sunday.

What does it mean to be the best team in this division? If it could last until the end of December, it would mean Kelly could gauge his methods and madness in the postseason. It is never a bad thing to make the playoffs, even if a ritual dismissal is the eventual outcome.

But while being better than the Cowboys, Redskins, and Giants might feel good compared to the alternative, that won't mean very much for the future. The Eagles still have to identify, acquire, and develop a long-term quarterback - merely the most difficult thing to accomplish in the NFL - and they have to significantly upgrade the talent on defense. Neither of those will happen quickly. Expecting them to be truly competitive in the league before 2015 is a stretch.

"What we get graded on at the end of the day is wins and losses," Kelly said. "If you're not winning enough games, you're not going to be here very long, and if you are winning games, you're going to be around."

The end of the day won't arrive soon for Kelly and his plans, however, and the team is still being graded on a forgiving curve right now. The only prize they really play for this season might be that NFC East trophy. It is dented and tarnished, and it won't be handed out this week, but it's better than the nothing the other three teams will get.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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