The Best, If Not The Best, Win of the Year: Sixers Thump Bulls at WFC

The Best, If Not The Best, Win of the Year: Sixers Thump Bulls at WFC

Two very convincing cases were made tonight at the Wells Fargo Center. They were as follows:

1. The Sixers deserve to be taken seriously as a threat in the Eastern Conference.
2. Andre Iguodala deserves to be selected for the 2011-12 NBA All-Star Game.

We'll get to #2 in a bit, but obviously, let's concentrate first and
foremost on the more important #1. Simply put, the Sixers were awesome
tonight in their 98-82 win over the Bulls. They did everything you'd
want your basketball team to do, minus another fourth-quarter stretch
where things got a little tighter than need be. They hustled. They
executed. They took care of the ball. They shared the ball beautifully.
They hit from the outside. They scored easy baskets in the paint. They
got out on the break. They finished on the break. They got to the free-throw line. They converted at the free-throw line. No one player dominated, but they got contributions from everyone.

And they defended. Oh, lord, how they defended. Watching the game with
my roommate, we wondered why the Bulls weren't just dumping the ball
into the post, where front line Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah should've
been able to manhandle the undersized Sixers until we realized that
maybe the Sixers defense on the perimeter was just so stifling that they
were never even able to get the ball that far in. It took a world-class
penetrator (chortle) like Derrick Rose to break through, and though
Rose did do that on occasion—oh me oh my, is he a marvelous basketball
player—he didn't take over (18 points on 8-17 FG), he didn't get to the
line (1-3 FT, though he and the rest of the Bulls got jobbed on a couple
calls), and he didn't get any help from his teammates (no other starter
scored in the double digits). The Sixers racked up ten steals, and
seemed to spend the entire third quarter on the fast break.

Heroes for the Sixers were everywhere. Credit must first be given to
Lavoy Allen, turning into perhaps the most pleasantly surprising of all
the Sixers' many pleasant surprises this season. Not only did Lavoy
Allen rack up a career-high 15 points on 7-10 shooting, finishing plays
in the paint for the Sixers where there's been a seven-foot-sized
absence for the Sixers since Spencer went down, even scoring on a couple
Basketball Moves of his own, and not only did grab six boards and swipe
two steals to go with it, but he also distributed an impressive three
assists—tying a career high set Monday against Orlando. Needless to say,
big man got skills.

Jrue Holiday was another leading light for the Ballers tonight, bouncing
back from his rough game against the Magic with 17 points (8-15
shooting), five assists and just one turnover, converting some huge
layups and a game-breaking three to put the Sixers up 20 in the third
quarter. Lou Williams took some terrible shots (duh) but got himself to
the line, scoring 14 and keeping the Sixers afloat in that rocky fourth.
Thaddeus Young added 19 points and eight rebounds in what didn't even
feel like a particularly impressive game for the super-sub. And Evan
Turner, despite a rough 1-6 night shooting, still put up six rebounds,
four assists and two steals, and shut down sharpshooter (and ex-Sixer)
Kyle Korver on the perimeter after it looked like KK might have been on
the way to an Andre Miller/Willie Green-style Revenge Night game against
his old team.

But you guys know who this game was really about. The All-Star candidacy of Andre Iguodala has been a debate
among Sixers fans (and a discussion topic in the Sixers locker room)
for a few weeks now, and after tonight, I believe he's finally gonna get
there. In the Sixers' biggest game of the season, it was Andre Iguodala
and not Derrick Rose who was the most dominant player on the court—'Dre
was absolutely everywhere tonight, keying the Sixers' defensive effort
on the wings, getting two steals, grabbing nine boards, handing out four
assists and pouring in 19 points on 8-13 shooting, including 2-3 from
deep. In one stretch in the third quarter, 'Dre slammed home a
fast-break dunk, hit a step-back three and then slammed home another,
much louder fast-break dunk, whipping the WFC into a frenzy we haven't
seen since Game Four of the playoffs last year.

Look, it wasn't a perfect game from 'Dre—it never is, never has been,
never will be. He still coughed up the ball three times, split his only
two free throws, took a handful of ridiculously ill-advised shots
(though at least he hit a couple of them tonight). But if you ever
needed a demonstration of his value to the 76ers, of what he can and
does do for this team, you saw it on the floor against Chicago. There
aren't five players in the whole league that could've done all of what
'Dre did tonight, and on a team with one of the best records in the East
but no immediately obvious All-Star candidate, it will almost certainly
fall to 'Dre to get his first nomination in his eight seasons of being
one of the league's most underappreciated players. (By the way, look
back on that 2004 draft sometime. Besides Dwight Howard and maybe Josh Smith–another likely first-time AllStar this year—is there anyone you'd rather have on your team than Andre Iguodala?)

So, a hell of a win for the Sixers—"The best, if not the best, win of
the year," Zumoff adroitly put it as the Sixers pulled away in the
third. Sure, you could say that it's not a 100% on-the-level win—the
Bulls were, after all, missing two starters in Luol Deng and Rip
Hamilton—but eventually, you have to ask yourself: Who are the really
good, totally healthy teams in the East this year? Not the Bulls. Not
the Hawks. Not the Pacers. Not the Heat, until very recently. Nobody,
including the Sixers, have had all their key parts available for all (or
even most) of this season, yet it's the Sixers who are now 5-1 against
playoff-bound East teams. In the words of Mike McDermott from Rounders, if you look at your schedule and can't spot the real Eastern Conference contenders, then you are one of those Eastern Conference contenders. 

Next up, then: The Miami Heat, dispensers of the only decisive Sixers
loss this season, on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. Despite the good
feeling from this win, I still can't feel too great about facing
Miami—mostly because with the players on their team, I'm not really sure
why they should ever lose to anyone, ever—but they've already made
their point in the first two games of this tough seven-game swing. We've
still got a long way to go, but the 16-6 Sixers—just one game behind
the pace of their finals-bound 2001 season—are for real. Time to get
with this, people.

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews experienced something new on Sunday. Something he hoped he’d never have to experience. 

He was relegated to spectator.  

After never missing a game dating back to little league – through high school, college, and into his third season in the NFL – a right ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s 32-14 loss in Cincinnati. 

“It’s definitely not fun,” Matthews said. “But it’s one of those things where I try not to dwell on it or be like ‘woe is me.’ There’s people going through way worse things in America than me missing a football game.”

The Eagles certainly could have used Matthews on Sunday. But they should get him back this weekend when the Birds host Washington for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Linc. Along with Ryan Mathews and Dorial Green-Beckham, Matthews is listed as questionable. 

But he seems confident he’ll be good to go. 

“I think one game is definitely going to be enough for me,” Matthews said. “I’m definitely going to try to get back out there Sunday.” 

On Friday, during his first media availability in two weeks, Matthews said he chose to find the positives in his absence from Sunday’s game. Namely that Paul Turner and Trey Burton got some extra reps. 

Burton had five catches for 53 yards and Turner, in just his second NFL game, had six catches for 80 yards. 

“I try to see the positives,” Matthews said. “I liked seeing what PT was able to go out there and do. I was happy for him and his first live-game action, being able to go out there and make plays. I was also proud of Trey. His role got to expand with me being out and I think he played extremely well. He got to show what he can do and show how he can help this team. We just have to continue to utilize him moving forward. There’s always a positive in it. 

“We might not see it now, in a loss, but just think, some of those guys are going to be weapons for us in the future. And we saw they can go out and perform well without me in there, so I think it’s going to end up being a positive. But I definitely can’t wait to get back out there.”

Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said that even with Matthews’ returning, the team would still try to get Turner involved. Since the team sees Turner primarily as a slot receiver, that means Matthews could see time outside this weekend. There’s an even better chance when taking Green-Beckham’s injury into account. 

Before the season, Pederson talked a lot about wanting to play Matthews both inside and outside, but this season, Matthews has been in the slot for 74 percent of his snaps. Forty-four of his 57 catches have come from the slot too. 

On the play where Matthews hurt his ankle against the Packers, he was actually lined up outside and caught a back-shoulder throw from Wentz. 

“I was actually joking with Carson,” Matthews said, “I was like ‘bro, the reason I got hurt was because our back shoulder was better than Jordy [Nelson] and Aaron [Rodgers’]. So it didn’t mesh well with the universe. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way on Monday night for everybody to see, so the football gods took my ankle. So it’s all good. … That’s a joke.”

Matthews, despite being in his third season, is clearly one of the Eagles’ leaders on offense, especially in a very young receivers room. He’s looking forward to playing Washington after he thinks they were the first team that “actually came out and beat” them earlier in the year. 

With four games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ playoff chances are extremely slim. But Matthews thinks it’s important for the team to finish strong, especially with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. 

With Wentz, Matthews thinks the Eagles have already taken the first step toward building something special. 

“He’s the guy,” Matthews said. “He looks like the guy, he walks like the guy, he talks like it. And he goes out there and plays like it. It’s more we have to continue to ride around him and coach Pederson and be positive and go out there and produce.”

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27