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.

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as he liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fade away jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guy’s first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of (Hakeem) Olajuawon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).