Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Having already been assured a playoff spot,
the Flyers technically have little more to play for than the pride of
conference and division titles, the latter of which can be wrapped up
tonight (based on this scenario), and of course home-ice advantage. But there is also plenty they can unofficially gain over their final three games. 

A few weeks ago, the only uncertainty with this team was which goalie
would be in net. Today, that's about the most concrete answer we know
(btw, Bob starts again tonight in Ottawa). All of sudden, there are a
few new injuries, though none are believed to be too serious, and Chris
Pronger is still out after a setback of sorts with his hand. Other
sources of uncertainty include the team's record at home recently, their
inability to do anything on the power play, an overall tapering off in
scoring, failure to beat teams seven or more slots below them in the
standings, and what, if anything, can be divined from all of these games
ending in shootouts recently.

Let's take a look at a few of these questions, as well as the recent
news on Michael Leighton, with absolutely no promises of actually
answering them. That's presumably what the next three games are for,
although I'm betting we probably won't know anything for sure about this
team until the first round of the playoffs. 

Bob, Boosh, and... Leights? 
First, Sergei
Bobrovsky is your playoff starter, and he'll probably play two of the
remaining games, or all three. After a swoon, he's been quite good
lately, and there's little reason to think Peter Laviolette is wavering
on him. Not even the surprise placement of Michael Leighton on re-entry
waivers should affect the playoff goalie situation, although I
admittedly am not sure why the team is exposing him to the process at
this time. If claimed by another team, the Flyers will be on the hook
for half of the AHL-hot Leighton's salary for another team. However,
Leights is ineligible to play for any of those teams in the upcoming
playoffs, so it's no slam dunk he'll be picked up in the next day. Are
the Flyers just looking to add him for injury depth? Clear half his
salary and some space for AHL goalie development of another goalie with a
longer-term timetable? I assume it's the insurance angle, but I'll tell
you when someone else tells me, because I'm really not sure what the
goal is here. The sting of seeing the roster hit by several injuries at
once is a good reminder of the wear and tear that is on the way though.
CSN's Sarah Baicker says that if Leighton clears, he'll play in one of
the two remaining games. 

Shootout Obscura
We've already gone over the
reasons we don't like the shootout, and yesterday, Peter Laviolette said
essentially the same thing about them—it's really quite hard to evaluate the outcome
of a game that ends in a shootout. Even those of us who are
dyed-in-the-wool shootout haters can lapse into counting any loss
collectively as an L. But as we've pointed out before, these particular
outcomes have very little to do with what will occur when it really
counts, as there is no shootout format in the playoffs. I say "very
little" as opposed to "not at all" because one fact still haunts the
Flyers more than the sight of a gifted scorer tripping over his own
stick to blow the decisive shot attempt—the Flyers should have been
winning many of those games in the first 60 minutes of play.

While the homer in me has been leaning toward the shootout results
obscuring the Flyers' not actually losing, those outcomes have done just
as much to hide the fact that the Flyers aren't winning by two and
three goals against teams they should be clearly better than. When the
shootout is removed, will these games still be going into OT, or can the
Flyers get back to outplaying their opponents enough in regulation to
just effing win? In any case, I'll be ecstatic when the regular season
is over, because the shootout will be gone with it, and we'll actually
be able to discuss who did or didn't win on the morning after. 

Superiority Complex
In all likelihood, the Flyers
will play either one of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference
in the opening round. If not, we'll have seen a dreadful week.
Considering both the seventh and the eighth seeded teams won round one
last season, being a top seed is not necessarily a sunrise on the
horizon. We don't presently know which direction the Flyers are headed
in, and it's suddenly not out of the question that they might be last
year's Capitals. I'm not inclined to think so, but I can safely be
labeled an optimist when it comes to these things. It's rare that a one
seed backs its way into the playoffs, but the Flyers will fit that
description almost regardless to what happens in these final three
games, short of three straight decisive wins. Even then, we've seen
enough lackluster play that there will be concerns come game one.

The Flyers face three supposedly inferior teams this week, starting
tonight in Ottawa. On Sunday, we went over the reasons why a matchup
with the Rangers should be the perfect catalyst to get their blood
moving. The Flyers were decent in the game, but it wasn't the showing we
were looking for. Considering the amount of Flyers-Senators footage you
can find on YouTube, maybe tonight is a little more what the doctor
ordered?

PECO Has a Complaint About Its Bill
Watching the
Flyers' power play, I can't help but think what a microcosm of the
team's issues this is. Their overall dip in scoring can be tied to the
fact that they're not doing a damn thing on the man advantage lately.
Why is this microcosmic to me? Because I can't understand at all what
the freaking problem is. Part of it comes with the fact that most people
who follow hockey, fans and media alike, lack a true understanding of
the X's and O's of this very fluid sport at the professional level. I
admit to being in this camp, and the power play is how I know my
shortcomings. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a team stacked
with 20-goal scorers and a few 30/30 men can't score when the other team
has fewer players on the ice than they do, nor what they should be
doing differently to fix it. I'm this close to becoming one of
those fans who just yells SHOOT because I have no idea what else to say.
(Incidentally, it's not "Shoot!" The Flyers have been doing that, but
not with any amount of success.) 

In any case, if there's any one thing this team needs to get in order
above all else, it's the power play. Another goal a game would really
change the complexion of regulation play, which right now has the Flyers
going end to end with opponents scrapping for scoring chances and then
sitting back on defense. With the game tied, opposing teams seem to be
taking fewer chances, which gives the Flyers less ability to use their
great counter-attack to generate offense. There's also no margin of
error for the fluke goals that have plagued the Flyers, such as the
three that have gone in off skates in the past two games.

Will the return of Pronger and Briere help? It should, as they're
among the better PP guys on the team. However, this dip in man advantage
productivity pre-dates Pronger's injury and certainly Briere's. 

The Final Three
Only one of the Flyers' remaining
three games comes against a possible playoff opponent, and that's
Friday in Buffalo. The Sabres could be hungry for their playoff lives
(currently the eighth seed) but Ryan Miller is dealing with an injury
and his availability is uncertain. There is no good reason for the
Flyers not to win at least two of three here and finish with the top
seed in the East. However, they've been losing for bad reasons ranging
from the stupid shootout to the woes on the power play, and a penchant
for making backup goalies look like Dominik Hasek.

More than anything, I'm hoping the final three games serve to get us
ready for the playoffs. I'm not sure that, win or lose, these outcomes
can change much for the team. But it felt great when we were all riding
high, and I want that shit back heading into the playoffs.

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

CINCINNATI – Normally upbeat and positive, Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz gave a terse answer, at least by his standards.

After the Eagles’ 32-14 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay), a game that was probably the worst of his young career, Wentz was asked about his proclivity for overthrowing his targets.

“Bad throw,” Wentz said blankly. “Just like last week.”

Those bad throws have been coming more and more frequently in recent weeks for the second-overall pick. After throwing one interception in his first five games, he’s thrown 10 in his last seven, including his first three-interception day on Sunday. A common thread has been overthrows.

When head coach and former QBs coach Doug Pederson was asked about those high throws from his prized quarterback, he said, “It’s strictly mechanics.” Pederson elaborated, saying they need to get Wentz off his back foot and stepping into throws. And then there were batted passes too.

“There were opportunities, obviously,” Pederson said. “Again, he's a young quarterback who missed a lot of time in the preseason, but now we just need to keep cleaning those things up.”

There might be a problem, though.

Wentz doesn’t seem to think there’s anything to clean up.

After Sunday’s embarrassing loss, the rookie said his mechanics feel the same now as they did when the Eagles started the season with three consecutive wins, before he had ever thrown a pick in the NFL.

“I don't think it's the mechanics,” Wentz said. “You make mistakes. Things happen, and that's just the bottom line.”

Is there anything that could be affecting his mechanics?

“I don't think so,” Wentz said. “You throw the ball 60 times, you're going to miss some. That kind of happens.”

Wentz seemed hesitant to take blame for his shaky play on Sunday (see breakdown of Wentz's performance), but he is right. Sixty passing attempts is an awful lot. In fact, it’s a record for an Eagles rookie and it’s the second most passing attempts a rookie quarterback has ever thrown in a game (Chris Weinke threw 63 in 2001).  

The reason for that, at least partially, on Sunday was the Eagles’ never got going offensively and their defense was porous at best, which led to the Bengals’ taking a 19-0 lead into halftime (see 10 observations from the loss). They had to try to throw their way back into the game.

“You never want your quarterback to throw 60 times, coming from behind,” Pederson said. “We put ourselves in a bind early in the football game. It’s going to be a learning lesson for him, obviously. We have to take a hard look at it. But by no means, the fact that he stood in there and still led the football team. He took some shots, but still stood in there and just shows you the kind of character and the toughness we have.”

For Wentz, who was once though to be the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the last couple months have been understandably difficult.

In the first four games of the season, he had a passer rating over 100 three times. He hasn't broken 100 since then and his 58.2 rating on Sunday was the second-worst of the season, behind his 52.4 in a winning effort against the Vikings.

“You just can't get down,” Wentz said. “You've got to stay optimistic. Obviously, the results are tough as of late. We're kind of on a skid. Like I've been saying, this is a good group of guys, a good locker room. Guys are in it until the end.”

It’s important to remember that, initially, Wentz wasn’t drafted to play this season. The original plan was to have him sit this season, but he was thrust into action after the Eagles traded away Sam Bradford.

Ultimately, Wentz will be judged for his play in years to come. For now, though, he and the Eagles have to try to find a way to fix this.

How do they do it?

“Obviously, we're on a skid,” Wentz said. “There's nothing really to change. We've just got to lock in and we've got to be more disciplined. At the same time, you don't get down. That's what I've been saying. This locker room, guys aren't going to get down. We've just got to be better with our discipline and just keep attacking. Obviously, we're in a tough spot, but we've just got to take it one game at a time.”

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

CINCINNATI -- It wasn’t all that long ago that the Eagles were proud owners of one of the NFL’s finest defenses.

Just a few weeks ago.

Coming out of that Atlanta win that elevated the Eagles to 5-4 and left them in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, fifth in sacks, fourth in takeaways and fifth on third down.

Pick a category, they were exceptional.

Pick a category, they’re not anymore.

The once-dominating defense continued an alarming downward spiral Sunday, allowing an undermanned Bengals team to score on its first six possessions on the way to a demoralizing 32-14 win over the Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay).

“Our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a shot to get to our ultimate goal of the Super Bowl,” cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. “As you can see right now, it’s not happening.”

Any hope the Eagles had of reaching the playoffs has evaporated. After their third straight loss and seventh in their last nine games, they’re officially playing out the string.

And not doing it very well (see 10 observations).

Six of their last seven opponents have scored 26 or more points. The last three quarterbacks they’ve faced have combined for five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 932 passing yards, zero sack yards and a 71 percent completion percentage.

Worst of all, they’ve allowed points on 17 of 27 meaningful drives over the last three weeks in losses to the Seahawks, Packers and Bengals.

“It’s very disappointing,” Fletcher Cox said after his eighth straight game without a sack.  “As an organization and as a team, it’s very disappointing.

“Today was not one of our days. We’ve got to get off the field on third down, we’ve got to minimize the penalties, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get our offense the ball back.”

We knew the offense would be a work in progress. Young and banged up. But the defense — especially the defensive line — was supposed to be the strength of this team. An elite unit.

Instead, they’ve been terrible. And getting worse.

“We had a bunch of goals this year,” Brandon Graham said. “We’re prideful men, and we don’t like to go out like this.”

How does a defense go from one of the best of the league the first half of the season to one of the worst the second half?

By allowing a historic number of third-down conversions (22-for-43 the last three weeks), by not forcing turnovers (three straight games without an interception), by not getting pressure (one sack for zero yards the last three games, no sacks the last two games), and by committing penalties at a near-record pace.

“It’s frustrating, man,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “Past couple weeks have been frustrating. To not get off on third down when that’s something we do well? And the past couple weeks to not get it done? It sucks. 

“We’re mad at ourselves. We got them into these 3rd-and-long situations but it’s one thing or another, and they convert it. Frustrating.”

During their current three-game losing streak, the Eagles have no interceptions and one sack. 

Their top playmakers – Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Hicks, Cox – have been largely ineffective.

They Eagles did force a couple fumbles Sunday long after the game had been decided, but nobody on this defense has made a meaningful impact play since Leodis McKelvin picked off Matthew Ryan in the Falcons game.

A month ago.

“If you don’t make those plays, it keeps the drive moving, you can’t get off the field on third down, you can’t get turnovers, you can’t get sacks … all the things that made us us good all season,” Carroll said.

“That’s what we hung our hat on and the past couple weeks we haven’t been able to get them and you see when we don’t get them what an offense can do. 

“We have to get back to what we do, and that’s getting turnovers, getting after the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.”

On the heels of brilliance from Wilson and Rodgers, Dalton completed 23 of 31 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, a 130.0 passer rating.

The Bengals even ran for 80 yards as the Eagles allowed 400 or more yards for the third time in a row, something that’s only happened twice previously in franchise history.

“You all see it out there,” McKelvin said. “We can’t expect to win when we have those type of mistakes and not executing plays. We can’t go backwards. On both sides, we can’t go backwards. We can’t go backwards as a defense, we can’t go backwards as an offense. We’ve got to make those plays.”

This is the first time in 33 years the Eagles have had a three-game stretch in which the defense totalled just one combined sack and interception. 

It’s really hard to be that ineffective.

“It is uncharacteristic of us,” McLeod said. “Have to credit teams sometimes, but a lot of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways, not doing the things we need to do defensively to win games. 

“Most of the time early in the year we got turnovers, we got stops, and helped the team win. We’ve just got to find ways — myself included — to help us out any way we can.”

The Eagles have lost three straight games by double digits after opening the season with three straight wins by double digits.

They’re clearly not headed in the right direction, and the defense is leading that charge.

First six weeks? They allowed 12.5 points per game, and the Eagles were 4-2.

Last six weeks? They’ve allowed 26.2 points per game, and the Eagles are 1-5.

“It felt like we were playing pretty well on first down and getting killed on third down,” Hicks said. “In third-and-long situations, those are situations where usually we win. We didn’t win them today. 

“Credit the offenses we’ve played, they’ve taken care of the ball, but we’ve got to do a better job getting turnovers, setting our offense up and getting them field position. 

“That’s what defense is all about. Being aggressive and getting the ball back for your offense, and we haven’t been able to do that.

“We made some plays (at the end), but it’s too little too late. We’ve got to come out from the start and play with that type of intensity.”

It doesn’t look like the Eagles have quit. They’ve just stopped making plays.

At every position.

“It’s not lack of effort, we just have to self-evaluate ourselves and get back to the way we were playing before and figure it out,” McLeod said.

“I believe we’re going to stay together. It’s just disappointing because we work so hard and to fall short of what we ultimately want to do, it’s hard as a player.”