December tests await the Birds

Chip Kelly checks his cellphone during warmups before Sunday's game.
Chip Kelly checks his cellphone during warmups before Sunday's game. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: November 21, 2013

The Eagles players went their separate ways Tuesday as members of an unlikely first-place team. They have been given a week to rest their minds and bodies before a five-game December stretch run that has become a lot more than just a final evaluation for the future.

"I think you always want to play meaningful games," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "That means you won a few previous to that. Fortunately, we put ourselves in a position where we kind of control what might be the outcome of this regular season."

A one-game-at-a-time cliché followed from Shurmur, who no doubt heard it a million times from Andy Reid and quite a few more this season from Chip Kelly. For all their differences, the old Eagles coach and the new one share the carpe-diem mentality with the thousands of other folks who have coached men playing games for a living.

"What's most important is we take it as a one-game season, and this week is the most important week," Shurmur said. "Once we get back to preparation next week, it will be the Arizona Cardinals, because that's the next game."

The game against the Cardinals will be played Dec. 1 at Lincoln Financial Field, the first of five December games - with the last being against the NFC East rival Cowboys on Dec. 29 in Dallas. Plenty of Eagles fans already are thinking about that final game and all its potential implications, but that really is not the way things operate inside an NFL practice facility.

It's possible you could ask defensive coordinator Bill Davis which team the Eagles will play in four weeks and he would not know. Tunnel vision is vital in the NFL because so much can change from day to day and week to week with injuries, varying schemes, and diverse matchups.

"From our side of it, when you're working one day at a time, today is all about who we are, what our scheme is doing, what it's doing poorly, what fundamentals we're doing well and poorly," Davis said.

Davis was talking only about Tuesday.

Wednesday, he said at the risk of looking too far ahead, "will be a little more about Arizona. Like Coach [Kelly] says, put your head down and focus on what needs to be handled today. When we get to the next game, it's about that game. On our side, there's not a big difference in December versus September."

That's true for the coaches, but there is a difference between December and the other months of the regular season on the field. You can gain momentum, as the Eagles have done, in September, October, and November, but if you can't close the deal in December, it doesn't mean anything.

Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb may be remembered most for their postseason failures, but they knew how to get the job done in December. John Madden once said that you have to win a lot of big games to play in the even bigger games, and the record shows that Reid and McNabb did that.

A lot of players were getting questions Tuesday about Kelly's sports-science techniques designed to help the players stay healthy and feel fresh through the entire season.

Reid offered his players cheeseburgers the night before games, and he had a 40-19 regular-season record in December. McNabb was 21-8 in the season's final full month. There were times they won their final game in December to clinch home-field advantage, division titles, and wild-card berths.

Kelly and Nick Foles, after this week off, will get their first opportunity as a coach-quarterback duo to prove that they, too, can win the big games needed to get to the even bigger ones. There's a pressure there that wasn't before, and it's not just on those two. It's on everyone.

Players talk all the time about rising intensity as the games become more meaningful.

"I feel like the game definitely picks up a bit in December when everybody is gunning for those playoff spots," veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "The game is a little faster and guys are running to the ball a little bit harder. That's when you want to be peaking as a team. You want to be peaking and at your best in December. I feel like we're headed in that direction."

For much of the season, the Eagles have been playing without great expectations. To their credit, they have changed those expectations, and a most improbable NFC East title is theirs for the taking. It will be fascinating to see how they handle it.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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