The Morning Call (Sunday)

Tough fight ahead for Birds

Forces outside Eagles’ control may impact playoff hopes

- By Nick Fierro

Doug Pederson came into this season as the only returning head coach in the NFC East. He may finish this season on Sunday as the only outgoing coach in the division if his Eagles don’t show some sign of life against the Washington Football Team, which will need to win Sunday night’s nationally televised game to capture the division crown and make the playoffs.

The Eagles have talked all week about the “no-hat rule,” in which they desperatel­y want to prevent a visiting rival from celebratin­g at Lincoln Financial Field.

But many circumstan­ces, most of which are out of their control, are conspiring against this goal.

Here’s a look at the matchup.

About Washington

Other than coming up with the most unimaginat­ive temporary name as it seeks a new brand that’s not especially offensive to native Americans, Washington has put together a surprising­ly solid season under former Eagles assistant Ron Rivera.

Rivera in August was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma located in a lymph node. But he’s considered to be cancer-free after undergoing treatments during the season and leading his team to the brink of a playoff berth.

The Football Team has endured some turmoil at the quarterbac­k position and on Monday cut Dwayne Haskins, its first-round draft pick in 2019, following an incident in which he violated the COVID-19 protocol policy for a second time by going unmasked at a strip club.

Though Washington still has respected veteran quarterbac­k Alex Smith, who this season made a miraculous return to football from a career-threatenin­g knee injury, his status for this game is in doubt because of a calf injury. Smith wasn’t able to answer the bell last week against Carolina, and Haskins played poorly as his replacemen­t, which was the final straw for him in Washington.

About The Eagles

Jalen Hurts has taken over for Carson Wentz at quarterbac­k, but the results haven’t changed. The offense still struggles to score and the Eagles still struggle to win, losing two of Hurts’ three starts and prevailing over a backup quarterbac­k in the other.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of Hurts’ fledgling career is that last Sunday he joined Robert Griffin III as the only NFL quarterbac­ks since 1950 to accumulate 800-plus passing yards (847) and 200-plus rushing yards (238) in their first four career starts. Griffin’s career washed out after an encouragin­g rookie season and he’s now a backup to reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.

Miles Sanders is the only player in the league since 2012 with three rushing plays of 70-plus yards. His 867 rushing yards and six rushing TDs lead the team. But he has been declared out for this game.

Injuries

Washington: LB Thomas Davis (knee) is out. RB Antonio Gibson (toe), WR Terry McLaurin (ankle), LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) and QBAlex Smith (calf ) are questionab­le.

Eagles: DE Derek Barnett (calf ), LB Shaun Bradley (neck-injured reserve), DT Fletcher Cox (neck), TE Dallas Goedert (calf ), WR DeSean Jackson (ankle), T Jordan Mailata (concussion), LB Duke Riley (biceps-injured reserve), TE Richard Rodgers (ankle), RB Miles Sanders (knee) and S Jalen Mills (Reserve/COVID-19 list) are out. CB Michael Jacquet (calf ) is questionab­le.

Storylines

14 starting OL combinatio­ns

Another injury will force the Eagles this week to start their 14th different offensive line combinatio­n in 16 games. This time it’s left tackle Jordan Mailata, who was knocked out of last week’s loss at Dallas with a concussion.

So recently re-signed Brett Toth, who played at Army, gets his first career start. Ironically, the last time he started a football game was also at Lincoln Financial Field. That was in the Army-Navy game in 2017.

“Stout [OL coach Jeff Stoutland] always talks about how it’s the next man up and you’ve got to be ready for your time to come,” Toth said. “... I’m just ready for the opportunit­y, you know? It’s going to be exciting.”

Makeshift secondary

Safety Marcus Epps on Friday spoke about the altered landscape that has come about since starting safeties Mills and Rodney McLeod and starting cornerback Avonte Maddox have been lost. Three other members of the secondary are on injured reserve.

“I’ll definitely have to take a bigger role in communicat­ing,” he said. “... With guys like Rodney and Mills not there, I also understand that we’ve got a lot of young guys out there, myself included ... so we’ve all got to do a better job of just over-communicat­ing, talking to each other out there and making sure we’re all on the same page.”

Jacquet, who had a disastrous start against the Cowboys last week, has long since shaken that off.

“I’m a confident person either way it goes,” Jacquet claimed. “So I wasn’t really dwelling on it. It happens to the best. Everyone has a bad game or ... has a game that doesn’t go the best.”

Looking ahead

A loss could move the Eagles up to as high as No. 3 in the 2021 NFLDraft order. A win could drop them to as low as No. 10. This is why, with the team out of the playoff picture, many fans are hoping for a loss.

Key matchups

Eagles tackles vs. Washington pass rush

Matt Pryor, the Eagles’ third option at right tackle, and Brett Toth, their fourth option on the left side, will be the starters. The Football Team counters with the likes of Chase Young, Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan. Andthat’s just on the edges. All of this makes the decision to throw Hurts out there for another start borderline criminal.

If Hurts, say, tears an anterior cruciate ligament in a meaningles­s game he’s forced to play with so little proven profession­al help, howwould the Eagles justify that?

The answer is that they couldn’t. Eagles CBDarius Slay vs. Washington WRTerry McLaurin

Slay has been making a habit of following opponents’ top threats around, with mixed results.

On this day, with so many matchup advantages Washington is expected to have, Slay will need to come through here.

McLaurin has 80 catches for 1,078 yards and three touchdowns.

Eagles kickoff return team vs. Washington kickoff team

There’s no reason for opponents to try for touchbacks against the Eagles anymore in a season that has been characteri­zed by poor special-teams play throughout.

Boston Scott is averaging just 21.1 yards per return. But he’s not the problem, according to special teams coordinato­r Dave Fipp, who said the trouble runs much deeper than just one man.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think that play just comes down to one guy,” Fipp said. “I think you’re trying to base the success of the whole return unit off of one player and I don’t think that’s fair for any one player out there on the field. I think there are a lot of different factors that factor into that.

“... Obviously for us, in that game there [last week], we had a double-team on a guy and we didn’t get the doubleteam taken care of. The guy beat us on a double-team and ended up making a play back there deep on us. I don’t think that really has much to do with Boston. Can he influence it? Yes, there’s no question. Obviously all 11 of those guys can make a difference on any given play and then myself also. So, I wouldn’t necessaril­y say that the results all go back to one player. I think it’s the sum of all 11 guys.” Lovely.

Eagles pass rush vs. Washington­QB Alex Smith

Barnett, Sweat and Cox remain out, which is bad news for the Eagles, who gave up more than 500 yards to the Cowboys and backup quarterbac­k Andy Dalton in a blowout loss last week.

Defensive coordinato­r Jim Schwartz on Tuesday tried to downplay their absences.

“I really don’t put it on those guys up front,” Schwartz said. “I think they could have helped a little bit, but they weren’t the reason that we were giving up big plays.”

Fierro’s pick

Pride won’t be enough to carry the Eagles, who have never been more depleted in this injury-marred season than they will be for this game. Their offensive line and defensive backfield will feature multiple players who wouldn’t even be in their practice squad, much less their active roster, in a normal season.

Anyone old enough to remember the 1987 NFL player strike that led to teams trying to break the union with replacemen­t players will understand how poor this game will be for the Eagles.

Washington 33, Eagles 17. (Season pick record 9-5-1)

Next up for the Birds

The Eagles’ season ends with this game. They are out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season.

 ?? RONJENKINS/AP ?? Eagles quarterbac­k Jalen Hurts could be running for his life Sunday night against Washington.
RONJENKINS/AP Eagles quarterbac­k Jalen Hurts could be running for his life Sunday night against Washington.

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