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.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).