In my last post, I took stock of the NFC playoff teams to get a sense of how the Eagles stacked up against the field. This week I’ll be discussing the Eagles more in depth as they prepare for a rematch against their Week 18 opponent, the New York Giants.
In this article:
- An analysis of the common playoff trope, “It’s a brand new season”
- Areas of concern for the Eagles against the Giants
- Score predictions for this weekend’s playoff games
A Clean Slate
Often you will hear a pundit say “it’s a brand new season” when discussing the NFL playoffs. It’s typically invoked when discussing a lower-seeded team as a way to pump up their chances of pulling off an upset. Anecdotally, this makes sense as upsets happen in the NFL playoffs all the time. It’s what makes them dramatic and exciting. Heck, the Giants just did that last week against the Vikings. And of course there’s 2017, when the Eagles won three straight playoff games as underdogs en route to their first Super Bowl victory.
The statistics bear this out too. Here’s a plot of regular season win percentages against playoff win percentages for every playoff teams from the past five years:
Considering that an r-squared value of 1 indicates a “perfect” correlation between two datasets, the one we see here (~0.05) indicates that how many games you won in the regular season does not predict playoff success.
So this is bad news for the Eagles, right? Not necessarily. All this says is that the regular season is not really about establishing yourself as the “team to beat” or “#1 in power rankings,” because the Super Bowl will be won by whoever gets “hot” in the playoffs. It’s all about positioning. The playoffs are not made up of “powerhouses” and “lucky-to-be-heres.” They’re made up of road teams, home teams, and home teams with byes. The regular season is about being that home team with a bye, and to that end the Eagles have done their job.
So yes, it is a “brand new season” - one where the Eagles have earned themselves a significant advantage. But even beyond that, does the “brand new season” cut both ways? Can a top team that struggled down the stretch hit the reset button in January?
To find out, I re-ran the same exercise above, except I limited the regular season to each team’s last four games (which I’ve called “December win percentage” for brevity):
The r-squared value for this analysis was even lower - by an entire order of magnitude. In other words, the common worry about “backing into the playoffs” is much ado about nothing. This should give some solace to any Eagles fans who are still hand-wringing over the past month of games - it should have no bearing on their performance in the playoffs.
When looking ahead to the Giants, the above analysis suggests the regular season isn’t as relevant as we might think. So does this mean that we can’t be confident at all about the game? That it could be a coin flip? First off, by pure talent the Eagles hold a significant edge over the Giants in virtually every category except running back. But this isn’t basketball. You can’t just toss some all-stars out there and expect a win. Coaching is going to be the deciding factor, and while the Eagles coaches have done a masterful job all season, there are certainly some areas to watch on Saturday night:
Utilizing Jalen Hurts as a rusher. For all the talk about how Hurts is a “massive” part of their running game, he ran the ball nine times or fewer in eight of his fifteen starts this year - this includes both designed runs and scrambles. Given that the Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes rest on his health, Sirianni and Steichen should use quarterback runs as a means to keep the defense honest and lean on their passing game as much as they can. If they need to run, there’s nothing wrong with a traditional running game, especially considering Boston Scott’s history as a Giant Killer. This was the blueprint for some of their biggest victories this year, as Hurts only ran against the Steelers (35-13 victory), Titans (35-10 victory), and Giants (48-22 victory) a total of fourteen times.
Handling the blitz. There are few defensive coordinators that like to blitz as much as Wink Martindale, and the coaches have at times had a half-baked plan to deal with it (read: “Let Hurts run around and make something happen”). To his credit, Hurts has made great strides as a passer against the blitz as the season wore on, but I’d personally be more reassured if they actually worked some hot routes into the game plan. Especially since they have receivers like Brown, Smith, and Goedert!
Defending short fields. The Eagles’ sterling turnover differential came crashing back to Earth in the second half of the season, which also happened to coincide with some of the defense’s most lackluster performances. There was a lot of talk about failing against “top QBs” like Rodgers and Prescott, and while Dak’s stat line against the Eagles was ugly, I wondered if it went deeper than that. Both games against the Packers and Cowboys were field position disasters for the Eagles, so I put that under the microscope (after all, the Cowboys scored 20 of their 40 points on Christmas Eve off of turnovers).
I charted every opponent drive for those two games. The average starting position for the opponent in both games was their own ~38 yard line. Things get interesting when you break it down by how the drive starts. If the Eagles gave up a big kick return, the drive started on the opponent’s 46 yard line. Turnovers committed on the plus side of the opponent's 40 occurred, on average, on the Eagles’ 35 yard line.
And how did the defense respond to these situations? Look and see:
The graph above shows the result of opponent drives that were “full field” (all drives starting inside the opponent 40 yard line, the ball spot for a kickoff out of bounds), long kick returns, and turnovers that did not force a "full field" drive. Of the eleven “full field” drives, they only gave up three touchdowns while forcing two punts and recording three interceptions, rounding it out with three “bend but don’t break” field goals. Long kick returns were less successful, with one field goal, one punt, and one touchdown apiece.
Turnovers, on the other hand, were atrocious. Note that these were turnovers of the “catastrophic” variety, as any turnover they committed inside the opponent’s 40 fell into the “full field” category. So while forcing a punt on a short field would be unlikely, the fact that they gave up twice as many touchdowns as field goals and were unable to force turnovers of their own is telling. Gannon’s “keep it short” soft zone defense may be very effective when a team has to go on long drives, but the best defenses can bail out an offense at least some of the time when they make a critical mistake. I’ve defended Gannon a lot, but it’s hard to do so here. He just doesn’t seem to have a plan for short field situations, and if the Eagles’ turnover issues continue it could be what breaks them in the playoffs - especially when teams like the Cowboys and Bills can win 12+ games with more serious turnover problems.
Score Predictions & Closing Thoughts
We have an excellent slate of games coming up this weekend. Here’s my two cents (that’s being generous) on the outcomes:
- Jacksonville vs. Kansas City. Dougie P’s masterful comeback against the Chargers is one of the best playoff games I’ve ever seen. As much as I love Andy Reid, I’d love to see Doug keep the magic going even more. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Jaguars can last a full four quarters against Mahomes and Kelce. They’ll keep the game close, but the Chiefs pull away late. Kansas City 34, Jacksonville 24
- New York Giants vs. Philadelphia. The Giants are a nice story this year and Daboll has absolutely acquitted himself given the roster he has at his disposal. That said, his team will be playing their third straight road game against a rested Eagles team that wisely kept things close to the vest in their quasi-preseason meeting in Week 18. Some classic NFC East nonsense will probably keep this game close, but the Eagles’ talent advantage wins out. Philadelphia 27, New York 23
- Cincinnati vs. Buffalo. This could prove to be the best playoff game of the whole tournament, especially considering the emotional backdrop surrounding Damar Hamlin. The firepower of both offenses makes this game a virtual coin flip, and while I think Josh Allen’s turnovers eventually catch up to him, they won’t this week. Buffalo 28, Cincinnati 24
- Dallas vs. San Francisco. While the Cowboys looked sharp and focused on Monday night, they were playing one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Brock Purdy, but I’m starting to transition to “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Dallas should give the 49ers a good game, but that defense is just too good and the Cowboys’ road trips are starting to pile up. San Francisco 21, Dallas 13
I have the Eagles beating the Giants - what about their Super Bowl prospects? I think it’s clear they have the talent and coaching to play with everyone. They also have real flaws other teams can exploit if they’re not careful. The Super Bowl will be won by the “hot” team, and that’s not always the team that comes in hot from the regular season (looking at you, 49ers). It’s up to the Eagles to be prepared, get locked in, and play smart football. They have everything they need to be the hot team - so long as they put it all together.
Will the Eagles beat the Giants?
Do you trust the Eagles’ talent in a Super Bowl run?
Yes, they have the best roster in the league
No, they were fading down the stretch
Do you trust the Eagles’ coaching staff in a Super Bowl run?
Yes, they’ve been outcoaching their opponents all season
No, because of Sirianni/Steichen
No, because of Gannon
No, all of their coaches are too young and inexperienced