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
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.