No gimmes on Eagles’ 2014 schedule

No gimmes on Eagles’ 2014 schedule

Last year, I thought Philadelphia Eagles’ fans expectations were too low, with many calling for 4-6 wins “at best.” Based on some of the reactions I’ve seen since the 2014 schedule was released on Wednesday, some of you might be a tad too high on the Birds heading into Chip Kelly’s second season on the sideline.

Assigning wins and losses before we’ve even held the NFL Draft is a fool’s errand to begin with. Anybody who looks at this slate though and thinks it sets up for 11, 12 wins “easy” is taking for granted just how fortunate the Eagles truly were last year, how the tough the rest of the league really is.

Don’t kid yourself. This schedule is very difficult.

Even if the NFC East is as weak as perceived, division rivals almost always play each other tight. The Eagles posted a 4-2 record in their division last season, with three of their wins coming by eight points or less.

Every team in the NFC West is quality, and the Birds face them all—two of whom met in the conference title game in January, the Seattle Seahawks being the reigning Super Bowl champions of course, plus another 10-game winner. All four clubs boasted defenses that ranked no worse than 13th in points allowed in ’13, and the worst of them—the St. Louis Rams, coming off of a 7-9 campaign—own two first-round picks in May, including No. 2 overall.

The AFC South isn’t exactly full of pushovers as it might appear, either. Obviously, the Indianapolis Colts are going to be tough year in, year out as long as Andrew Luck is under center. Too many people are overlooking an improving Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, and especially a Houston Texans team that, despite finishing with the worst record in the league, isn’t anywhere near that bad and could be due for a quick turnaround. And hey, the Tennessee Titans are a pro football team, too.

No last-place schedule this time around for the Eagles, either. Their unique opponents are a pair of fellow reigning division champions, the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers—one led by an MVP quarterback, the other one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

But who can say with any certainty which teams will be the toughest the months of September through December when it’s only April. The landscape often shifts dramatically on a year-to-year basis in the NFL.

That being said, it might be safe to say Philadelphia isn’t likely to wind up with the weakest strength of schedule in the league again, as they did in ’13. That’s right. The Birds managed to cobble together 10 whole wins going up against the easiest slate in the league. They even got a bonus when Aaron Rodgers missed the Packers game.

Not to take anything away from the season the Eagles just had. After all, teams can only play the schedule they’re given. Just saying, it helped.

The Eagles also benefitted from suffering almost zero serious injuries during the season. Other than Jeremy Maclin going down in training camp—which didn’t seem to slow down the league’s No. 2 offense much—who did the club lose for any length of time that was of any importance?

Chip awarded some of the credit for his squad’s good health to sports science. Let’s face it, luck was a huge factor as well, and injuries often play a huge role in which teams make a playoff run and which don’t.

In the Eagles’ case, they have some fairly glaring depth issues, particularly at wide receiver, defensive line and outside linebacker. With only six picks in this year’s draft, it’s going to be a challenge if not impossible to upgrade every area that could use it. And with seven starters or major contributors who are 30 or will turn before the Super Bowl, losing someone or even general decline becomes increasingly inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Philly has the most talented roster in the NFC East and a better than 50/50 shot at winning the division for a second year in a row, regardless of the arbitrary order in which the games are to be played. I’d just be careful not to assume that it’s a foregone conclusion they get there.

However, if I absolutely had to pick a win total today, I’d lean more in the 8-10 range than 11-plus.

The truth is, while the Eagles might be good enough to compete for a Super Bowl right now, they’re still probably a year away from having a complete, balanced roster. That means solid depth at most or all positions, less reliance on veterans that are past their primes.

As long as that’s the case, I can’t look at this schedule and picture many easy games. I’d say the Eagles should have a difficult road ahead.

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is making his second straight start after Saturday's 10-8 win.

Alfaro, the Phillies' top catching prospect, has gone 0 for 11 with a walk in his three career starts, all coming in the last two weeks since he was called up. Alfaro was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last July and is 1 for 13 with a walk in five games. 

The 23-year-old will catch Jake Thompson in a game that means a lot more to the Mets (1:10/CSN).

Giving Alfaro playing time allows Phillies fans the chance to get a glimpse of the future. Roman Quinn has received plentiful playing time after was called up in the mid-September and Alfaro, like Quinn, is trying to leave an impression on the Phillies' brass before spring training.

Quinn is not in the lineup on Sunday as Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche man the corner outfield spots. Freddy Galvis moved up to second in the lineup after staying in the bottom half of the lineup in recent games.

Ryan Howard will bat fifth, playing likely his final game at Citi Field with the Phillies. While he has batted just .203 in 52 career games at Citi Field, he alos has 11 home runs there after smashing 12 homers at Shea Stadium, the Mets' previous stadium.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Robert Gsellman and the Mets.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Aaron Altherr, RF
8. Jorge Alfaro, C
9. Jake Thompson, P

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes

Phillies-Mets 5 things: All the pressure on Mets, Gsellman

Phillies-Mets 5 things: All the pressure on Mets, Gsellman

Phillies (70-85) at Mets (82-73)
1:10 p.m. on CSN

After two rough losses for the Phillies and their pitching staff, the offense picked them up and came through with a 10-8 win. 22-year-old Jake Thompson takes the hill this afternoon while Robert Gsellman starts a crucial game for the Mets.

Here are five things to watch on Sunday.

1. All the pressure on New York, Gsellman
The Mets remain 0.5 games up on the final National League playoff spot. 

While their pitching staff was falling apart at the seams going into (and during) this series, the one saving grace for New York was its soft schedule, facing the Phillies seven times in its last 10. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals have to deal with the MLB best Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants end the year vs. the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, a loss on Saturday (thanks in part to Noah Syndergaard getting scratched with strep throat) puts the Mets in a precarious position. They're tied in the loss column with the Cards and Giants while fighting for one of two playoff spots and their rotation most closely resembles their Triple A team from Opening Day. 

Gsellman is one of those pitchers who started the year never having tasted the major leagues. In fact, he started the year in Double A. His first career start came at Citi Field last month against the Phillies and resulted in his first career loss after he allowed four runs in six innings. 

He's been better since that start, carrying a 3.13 ERA into Sunday. The 23-year-old righty will likely start vs. the Phillies again next weekend, meaning the Mets' season rides in part on a rookie with just 31 2/3 innings in the majors. 

2. Young man on a roll
While Gsellman lost his last start, Thompson has won his last two starts. The young righty is on a hot streak as his season nears an end.

Thompson's ERA has goe down in each of his last five starts, a stat made less impressive by the fact that he began that run with a 9.78 ERA. He has gone at least five innings in his last eight starts and has shown glimpses of why he was such a valued prospects.

In September, Thompson is 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA over four starts. He's still allowed 33 baserunners in 23 1/3 innings during that span, but it's been much better than his lackluster August.

While Thompson is in line to start next weekend against the Mets as well, today could be his final start of the season. He has already set a career-high in innings and the Phillies may not want to extend him one more start.

3. What to look for in the season's final week
Including Sunday, the Phillies have just seven games left in their season. They're eliminated from playoff contention, but there's still plenty to watch as the Phils take on Braves and Mets.

Ryan Howard's final fairwell: With his five-year, $125 million deal coming to a close this year, Howard is almost certainly playing his final games in Philadelphia next week. He'll get plenty of starts and may even face the Mets' Bartolo Colon, who he's smacked three home runs off of in his career.

Playing spoiler: As mentioned above, the Mets have everything on the line both today and next weekend in Philadelphia. There are few better ways to end a postseason-less season than knocking a rival out of playoff contention.

More looks at the kids: Roman Quinn's emergence over the last two weeks has been fun to watch and Jorge Alfaro may get more chances in the last seven games. Beyond them, Thompson, Tommy Joseph and others close out a nice first season. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Maikel Franco has looked more like his 2015 self over the last few weeks. He's batting .310 in September with three home runs, matching his August total. His 15 RBI this month are his most in a month other than July. 

Mets: Asdrubal Cabrera has been on fire this month as well. After battting .405 in August, he's batting .333 and has five home runs, including the walk-off homer on Thursday. He's slugging .628 this month after putting up a .786 slugging percentage in August. 

5. This and that
• In Gsellman's August start vs. the Phillies, he only allowed one run while he was in the game. However, he left the bases loaded in the 7th with no outs before A.J. Ellis knocked in the decisive two-run double to give the Phils a lead they would not relinquish.

• Six different Phillies batters had hits off Gsellman, including Jimmy Paredes who went 2 for 3 with a double and an RBI. 

• Despite pitching injuries, the Mets have the eighth-best team ERA in September with a 3.64 average. The Phillies are 15th in baseball with a 4.10 ERA this month.

• The Phillies are 6-9 against the Mets this year. They're already ensured of a better finish than last year's 5-14 mark vs. New York.

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