Can the Eagles play their best if the game isn't as big?

Eagles' head coach Chip Kelly talks with reporters during his weekly news conference at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pa. on December 16, 2013. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Eagles' head coach Chip Kelly talks with reporters during his weekly news conference at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pa. on December 16, 2013. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Posted: December 23, 2013

Thanks to the magic of flex scheduling, the Eagles will enter Sunday night's game against the Chicago Bears knowing it is either the biggest game of their season or a mostly moot contest that could have some implications further down the road but can't address their primary need, which is to clinch a playoff spot.

That's a pretty big difference, and it's logical to assume the Eagles are paying attention to all the possible ramifications that could result from the 1 p.m. game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.

"Well, we play a night game," inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks said after practice this past week. "When do they play?"

All right, maybe some guys are a little more focused on the Bears than others.

"If you're worried about the what-ifs, you're not worried enough about what you need to do," Kendricks said.

A good philosophy, particularly since what the Eagles need to do to beat the Bears comprises a long list. Their suddenly vulnerable defense has to contend with a great attack that contains two of the best receivers in the league; a dangerous multipurpose running back; and a quarterback who, when good, is very, very good. The Eagles offense has to keep up, something it couldn't do last week in Minneapolis.

"You just have to make sure you're ready. Even if the Cowboys win in the afternoon, you still have to be ready because you don't ever want to play bad football," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We're all competitive. You never want to lose a snap. That's how I look at it, and it's Sunday Night Football. I'm sure everybody's a little excited about that."

Nevertheless, unless the dysfunctional 3-11 Redskins, losers of six straight, can pull themselves together and beat Dallas, the real excitement will shift to the season finale between the Eagles and Cowboys on Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas. If the Redskins were to somehow win on Sunday, then the Eagles could clinch the NFC East Division by beating the Bears.

Chip Kelly has steadfastly maintained he will coach the same way regardless. He says he does not intend to rest starters to protect them from injury if the game has no impact on the division title.

"We've got to play and get back on the winning track. We've got to be ready to play winning football," Kelly said. "I think our philosophy has been [that] it's on the line every time you play. We need to get better as a football team. Everybody needs to play."

They need to get better than they were against Minnesota, but playing the Bears isn't a guaranteed confidence-booster, either. In any case, if the Eagles were to win a game that appears to be of little importance, it could still help them achieve better playoff seeding later on. That might seem like a slim reason to risk injury unnecessarily before a postseason slot is even secured, but Kelly says that is his decision.

"If Dallas does this, if Dallas does that. We can't worry about it," safety Nate Allen said. "We have to focus like it's the first game of the season. That's how we have to treat it, because I've learned that anything can happen."

The NFL could have kept its grubby fingers off and let both games play at 1 p.m., as was originally scheduled, but chose to put the Eagles-Bears game in the night slot instead of a perfectly good New England-Baltimore game. It wasn't because the NFL thinks the Eagles are so neat, or the game so appealing. It was because the league was on the verge of having taken too many daytime games away from CBS, as opposed to Fox, and pulled the switch so it could choose next week's flex victims from either conference.

In the process, of course, the NFL also made it possible that one or both of the teams would tank the game if so inclined - welcome, folks, to Sunday Night Nothing! - and that wouldn't be pretty. The Bears are in a situation similar to that of the Eagles - unable to be eliminated this weekend, but possibly playing either a clinching game or a meaningless game, depending on earlier results. So, the Bears could be the ones resting starters and searching for motivation. Or, regardless of the coach's public message to his team, the Eagles might take a pragmatic route, too.

Kelly insists that won't be the case. He says the Eagles will show up and be very serious either way. The players say that is how they prepared as well.

"I don't care what the Cowboys do, every game is important," cornerback Cary Williams said. "I'm thinking about my responsibilities. I've got two of the best receivers in the league coming in. You can get embarrassed out there, and I don't want to get embarrassed."

Personal pride and a national audience are excellent motivators, although Sunday night's game will become truly special only if the chance to clinch the division comes along with it. Now, that would be a motivator, and then the Eagles wouldn't have to pretend they didn't care what happened in that other game.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

|
|
|
|
|