The Big One? Eagles Take Early Preseason Test in New England

The Big One? Eagles Take Early Preseason Test in New England

Due to an unusual set of circumstances, the Eagles are holding their "dress rehearsal" one game early, which means when Monday Night Football kicks off tonight at 8 p.m., their starters will be going head to head with the reigning AFC Champion Patriots. Whether the opponent will treat the evening with any weight is another story.

The nearly perennial favorites to win the Super Bowl are typically a huge challenge. New England has averaged -- AVERAGED -- 12 wins per season over the last 11 years. Nine months ago they showed up at the Linc, and the scene quickly became a mugging. The Patriots marched up and down the field almost as if there were no defense out there. The Birds surely would prefer to make a better showing of themselves, and as we saw against Pittsburgh, they are still a little rough around the edges.

Unfortunately, they may not have that chance. ESPNBoston.com reported earlier this morning that Tom Brady and other stars may see little or no playing time in tonight's game.

Ordinarily the third preseason game is the tune-up for the regular
season. The reason for the change this year is a matter of timing. The
Eagles play again on Friday, and against Cleveland, their Week 1
opponent. With the games being just a few days apart, there's no reason
to get your starters beat up with extended action in the second of the
two, and you certainly don't want to show the Browns too much.

The Patriots also play on Friday, but they travel to Tampa Bay to meet the Buccaneers, who do not appear on their schedule again. Bill Belichick may opt to do the reverse of Andy Reid, and keep his players fresh for the upcoming match.

Regardless, this is the big one as far as the Eagles are concerned, big as far as preseason
games go. The starters are expected to play the entire first half, and
possibly into the third quarter. Matching up with a
top-tier team such as the Patriots, even if only for a few series, would make for a nice test heading into the
regular season, one that could help prepare the Eagles for the road
ahead.

Defense especially was the concern versus the Steelers, as well as last season -- the past few years actually -- and Juan Castillo's unit will have their hands full tonight. The Patriots finished second in yards from scrimmage and third in points scored in 2011, and have finished no worse than eighth in either category since '06. Brady is surgical, and he has elite talent to work with.

In particular, we're curious to see how the Eagles will match up against New England's tight ends, if either of them plays. Rob Gronkowski is coming off of an All-Pro season in which he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez added 79 receptions, 910 yards, and seven scores. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

The Birds improved their linebacking corps with the additions of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, but the group has their limitations. Nobody is certain Ryans possesses the athleticism to stay with these types of vertical threats down the field, and neither Kendricks nor Brian Rolle even stands at six foot compared to the 6'6" Gronk and 6'4" Hernandez. We might see Nnamdi Asomugha used to combat these apparent mismatches, but even then the Patriots have Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd running around out there.

As for Michael Vick and the offense, they need to get something going against the Patriots early after the Steelers limited them to a pair of three-and-outs in game one. While they will likely be improved from a year ago, the Pats D ranked 31st in yards allowed in '11. The Eagles' offense was fourth in yards gained. New England was especially vulnerable against the pass, so it would be nice to see a big play or two out of DeSean Jackson now that he has his contract.

The offensive line's performance has to be a point of emphasis as well. Obviously, all eyes will be on King Dunlap making the start over Demetress Bell at left tackle. However, there is a rather large fella by the name of Vince Wilfork in the middle of the Patriots defensive line, so how the interior holds up -- specifically second-year players Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins -- could be the determining factor on whether or not we see any long drives.

Of course, while Wilfork's name was not in the report that listed primarily offensive starters, he is certainly a key piece who may be limited as well. If the Patriots are content to play only backups, you have to wonder how much good it does the Eagles to have their first team play deep into the night. Then again, maybe it depends on how well they handle the opposing club's second stringers.

The Sixers are the perfect distraction from the Sixers

The Sixers are the perfect distraction from the Sixers

There's your Philadelphia 76ers season in a nutshell, huh? Nerlens Noel gets traded for an all-lemon pack of Starbursts, Ben Simmons' right foot is still apparently stuck in a beartrap, Joel Embiid can't get himself dismissed from the nurse's office, and Jahlil Okafor is forced back into +1 status after everyone else passed on going to the concert with Bryan Colangelo -- and the Ballers still go out and beat one of the best teams in the East in their first game back from the All-Star break. Nearly everything about the Sixers is depressing right now, except for the team themselves. They're cool. 

Kudos to Brett Brown, man. The team is playing with such fluency and energy right now that it can withstand some losses in personnel without the drop-off being particularly dramatic -- at least for the moment. Replacing Embiid and Noel with Okafor and Holmes for as long as we'll have to do it will catch up with us in time, but for now, all you can do is marvel at the pace, cohesion and (with some mildly glaring moments of exception) discipline that Brown has the guys playing at the moment. I doubt there are five coaches in the league having a more impressive season than him right now. 

But the players were pretty good in this one, too. Dario Saric had 20-11-4 in his first start in three weeks, continuing his unlikely Rookie of the Year surge with his third-straight double-double and fourth game of 20-plus in his last six games. The All-Star Break hasn't cooled Robert Covington's hot hand, as the shooter went 5-9 from deep last night and is now 17-31 on threes over his last four games, also posting a 20-10 night with his 25 points and 11 boards. (Also three assists and four steals, whatever.) Richaun Holmes dunked over some people and reminded a handful of fans why they've gotten way too excited about him at various points earlier in the year. Good times were had by all. 

Games like last night's also just remind you how marginal the difference between winning and losing is. As they've been wont to do forever, the Sixers blew their considerable lead to the Wizards late in this one, which would've undoubtedly resulted in a tragic loss in years past. But these days, the leads are a little bigger going into the Sixers' fourth-quarter tailspins, and their defense is just a little tighter on critical possessions, and that's the difference between losing on a Bradley Beal buzzer-beater and hitting just enough free throws to squeak out a mildly secure 120-112 victory. 

Anyway, after an impossibly discouraging week of Sixers happenings, it turns out some actual Sixers basketball is just what we needed. Hopefully their level of play will continue to get better as news of their off-court developments invariably keeps getting worse .

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).