Are the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles contenders?

Are the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles contenders?

Few people expected the Eagles to be in the thick of the playoff race heading into December, much less tied for first place in the NFC East. Chip Kelly’s inaugural season as head coach was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead, excitement mounts as Philadelphia makes its push for the postseason.

After the Birds failed to reach the past two tournaments, most fans understandably would be pleased by that much progress. Heck, a lot of folks are probably ecstatic the team is even in the hunt heading into the final month. Expectations are still relatively safe around here, as they probably should be, but at least football is fun again.

Win the division, maybe even advance as far as the second round, and that’s about as successful a season as anybody could have hoped for.

But if the Eagles can make the playoffs, perhaps even win a game in some eyes, why not more? That already puts them on the doorstep of the NFC Championship. One more W, and they’re only 60 minutes away from playing on the big stage. And if there’s even a remote chance they could make it that far, the thought has to begin creeping into your mind…

Is Philadelphia a darkhorse Super Bowl contender?

After talking to several Eagles fans during the bye week, I can tell a lot of you haven’t even entertained the thought. It may not have crossed your mind until now. Yet the Birds look like an increasingly formidable opponent, and prior to the break they were just beginning to fire on all cylinders, winners of three straight.

Chip’s offensive philosophies have opposing coaches on their heels. The quarterback is playing on a level that invokes names like Brady and Manning. The Birds’ defense has only allowed more than 21 points in a game twice this season. All things considered, the roster is in good health, and thanks to the sports science program, many of these guys are in the best shape of their life.

And the team is still improving. The Eagles are relying on major contributions from a ton of first- and second-year players, and they seem to be getting better every week. The youngsters round out a collection of solid veterans and Pro Bowlers that includes names such as LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans.

Doesn’t it kind of seem like everything is coming together at exactly the right time for this franchise to make some noise come January? How many times have we seen the hot team run the table at the end of the year?

Nobody is implying that’s definitely or likely or probably what’s going to happen here. The Eagles still have yet to defeat an opponent with a winning record this season. At some point, Nick Foles is going to come down to earth a little, or at least make a mistake or two. The defense hasn’t been challenged by many great quarterbacks this season.

The one great opponent Philly has faced this year—the Denver Broncos led by Peyton Manning—took this group apart 52-20. The Eagles didn’t appear as though they belonged in the same league, let alone on the same field.

Yet that seems like it was eons ago. Are the Eagles the same as they were back in September?

They also don’t have to worry about seeing Peyton again unless they go on this improbable run, although the schedule does intensify from here. Four of the Birds’ remaining five opponents currently own winning records, and obviously any team they encounter in the playoffs would as well.

There are quality teams in the NFC for sure, but does anybody look unbeatable? Maybe New Orleans Saints’ QB Drew Brees would carve up Philly’s secondary like a Thanksgiving turkey, or the Seattle Seahawks’ suffocating defense would have the answer to Kelly’s wizardry.

We won’t know anything unless and until the Eagles make it that far, either. There’s a very good chance they don’t make it into the playoffs, so you can see why it might be difficult to take them seriously as a contender.

Then again, if the Eagles come out of the bye week guns blazing and their momentum continues building into December, they’re going to be the opponent nobody wants to see come January. And as we tend to see once the playoffs are underway and every week is do or die, it's not always the so-called "best" team that wins—it's the team that's playing the best at the time.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies (15-26) vs. Rockies (28-17)
Coverage starts at  6:30 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies return home after a disastrous 2-7 road trip to host the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies in a four-game split.

Jerad Eickhoff gets the start for the Phils and is coming off of his best start in a month, but has a tough matchup vs. the Rockies’ potent offense.

Here are five things to know:

1. Like the old Eick
Eickhoff has been the model of consistency for Phillies pitchers since he joined the club in 2015, with 31 quality starts (six or more innings with no more than three earned runs) in 49 career games. But Eickhoff struggled recently, before regaining his form in his last start at Texas.

In his three prior starts — vs. the Dodgers, Cubs and Mariners — Eickhoff averaged just 4.2 innings per start as his ERA ballooned to 4.76. But the righty seemed to regain his form vs. the Rangers in his last start, a six-inning, two-earned-run outing.

Building off of that step will be a tall task, though against an explosive Rockies lineup.

2. Better hitters than Rocky
The hard-hitting Rockies are coming to town.

Colorado boasts one of the league’s best offenses, ranking fourth in runs scored, 10th in home runs and fifth in extra-base hits. Take the Rockies out of the thin air at Coors Field, and the numbers tell a different story, though. On the road, Colorado drops to 12th in runs, 14th in homers and 10th in extra-base hits. Still solid numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page at you. The Phillies (as bad as they are on the road) have more extra-base hits.

The Rockies are led by Mark Reynolds (yes, that Mark Reynolds), with 12 homers and 39 RBI. Shockingly, Reynolds — who has set the all-time single-season strikeout record in a season — is leading the team with a .323 batting average. 

Just about the only thing you don’t have to worry about with the Rockies’ offense is their speed. The Rockies rank dead last in MLB with just 11 steals on the year. 

3. Not the same old Rockies
Despite the dip in numbers on the road, the Rockies are still 15-7 on the road this season, the second-best mark in MLB, behind only the Astros.

What’s different about this year’s team, unlike years past, is the pitching. This year, they’re a middling staff, which is actually a huge improvement for the club. Last season, Rockies pitchers ranked in the bottom five in MLB in almost all categories: 27th in ERA (4.91), 28th in runs allowed (860) and 28th in opponent batting average (.274), just to name a few.

This year, the Rockies have knocked off nearly half a run per game (4.48 ERA) and rank 13th in the entire league with a .250 opponent batting average. With an offense like theirs, a middling pitching staff could be all the Rockies need to earn a postseason bid.

4. Oh, 'Dubel
What’s happened to Odubel Herrera?

After an All-Star 2016 season, Herrera has been one of the Phillies’ biggest disappointments in 2017. Batting just .236 on the year, Herrera is on pace to easily set a career high in strikeouts (168) and career lows in runs (60) and extra-base hits (39). Not a good look for Herrera after signing a five-year deal to be a building block of the future in the offseason. However, there is hope: In his career, Herrera has increased his batting average, runs scored and OPS each month as the season has gone along. 

5. This and that
•Jeff Hoffman will make a spot start for the Rockies on Monday. He’s the Rockies' third-ranked prospect by Baseball America and has a 4.97 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 19 walks in 10 career MLB games. Batters are hitting .282 off him this season.

•Eickhoff’s numbers have risen with Cameron Rupp behind the plate. With Rupp catching, Eickhoff has a 3.53 ERA as opposed to a 3.13 ERA with Carlos Ruiz catching.

•After a red-hot start to the month, Aaron Altherr has cooled off over the last week, hitting just .231 with more strikeouts (five) than RBI (four). 

NBA Playoffs: Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating 3 lifts Celtics past Cavaliers in Game 3

NBA Playoffs: Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating 3 lifts Celtics past Cavaliers in Game 3

BOX SCORE

CLEVELAND -- Leprechauns are imaginary. Celtic pride is very real.

Avery Bradley's 3-pointer danced on the rim and dropped with less than a second left and Boston, blown out in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals and playing without star Isaiah Thomas, stunned the Cleveland Cavaliers 111-108 on Sunday night in Game 3 to end the champions' 13-game postseason winning streak.

Bradley's shot from the left wing -- off a play designed by coach Brad Stevens -- bounced on the rim four times before going down. It capped a furious, focused comeback by the Celtics, who trailed by 21 in the third quarter before rallying to tighten up a series that appeared to be over.

"Wide-open look," Bradley said. "Al (Horford) did a great job of getting me open and Marcus (Smart) made a great pass and I was able to knock down the shot."

Smart, who started in place of Thomas, made seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points, and Bradley had 20 for the Celtics, who were given little chance after losing by 44 in Game 2 and then losing Thomas for the rest of the postseason because of a hip injury.

"Everybody had to step up their game tonight especially with one of our brothers down," Smart said. "Our love and support goes out to Isaiah. We wish he could be here but we understand. We just kept fighting. Everybody did their part."

Kyrie Irving scored 29 points, and Kevin Love had 28 for Cleveland. The Cavaliers dropped to 10-1 in the postseason with their first loss since Game 4 of last year's Finals.

Game 4 is Tuesday night in Cleveland.

LeBron James had one of the worst games of his postseason career, finishing with 11 points and six turnovers.

"I didn't have it," said James. "You let a team like that grab momentum you almost knew a shot like that was going in."

Still, the Cavs were in control leading 77-56 in the third quarter after making 14 3-pointers in the first half. But Cleveland got complacent, Smart got hot and the Celtics, who arrived at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday morning for their shootaround without Thomas and looking somewhat defeated, never gave up.

"We decided were going to go out and play hard, swinging." Bradley said. "We never counted ourselves out."

The Celtics caught the Cavs at 95-all on Smart's 3-pointer and then matched the James and Co. basket for basket in the final minutes in one of the most entertaining games of what has been a mostly boring postseason.

Boston's Jonas Jerebko's baseline jumper put the Celtics ahead 108-106 with 30 seconds left before Irving scored on a drive to tie it with 10.7 seconds left.

Following a timeout, the Celtics perfectly executed a play drawn up by Stevens and worked the ball to Bradley, who found himself open and then calmly knocked down a shot that goes straight into Celtics lore.

For Cleveland, the loss was a wake-up call on their march toward a possible third straight Finals and a seemingly inevitable rematch with Golden State. The Cavs had been playing a glorified game of H.O.R.S.E. with the Warriors, who are undefeated and can complete a sweep of San Antonio on Monday night.

The Cavs hadn't lost since Game 4 of last year's Finals, and they came in tied with the 1988-89 Los Angeles "Showtime" Lakers for the longest winning streak in postseason history.

With Thomas back home, the Celtics could be forgiven for feeling down after Thomas, their inspirational leader was shut down with a hip injury he first sustained in March.

However, Stevens liked his team's energy leading up to tipoff and felt confident they would play hard.

"Our guys are itching to play," he said. "Obviously, we're here for a reason, and we've got tough-minded, competitive guys who have largely been guys that have had to really earn their way up in this league."

They earned their way back into the series.

Tip-ins
Celtics: Stevens said Thomas will visit hip specialists over the next few days and there's a chance the 28-year-old will need surgery. ... Stevens didn't review much of the Game 2 tape, but there's a mental image in his head of the Cavs making tough shot after tough shot that he can't shake. "As good as they are and they are tremendous, that might have been the best game I've ever seen a team play against us," he said. Does that mean college too? "Yeah, I think they would have beaten all those teams, too," he said, drawing laughter. ...

Cavaliers: James came in needing 73 points to pass Michael Jordan as the top scorer in postseason history. ... Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was an assistant in Boston and said his team reminds him of those Celtics teams with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. "That was a tight group," he said. "They did everything together, dinners and everything." ... Cleveland is 14-0 when leading a series 2-0. ... Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, and fellow rookie Jabrill Peppers took a few shots on the floor before teams came out for warmups.