One of the most shocking trades of the NFL offseason was the Eagles trading away LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills. In Chip Kelly’s first season as Eagles HC, McCoy led the NFL in rushing with 1607 yards, and got over 1300 yards last season, adding seven hundred yards through the air in his two years under Kelly as well as sixteen touchdowns. The decision to trade McCoy seemed strange at the time, and while the team would then go on to bring in DeMarco Murray, the team have yet to replace the production McCoy had – and the move looks even worse in light of the issues Murray is having with the Eagles organisation. So what can we expect this afternoon when McCoy returns to Philadelphia with the Bills? Buffalo have had a very up-and-down season, to say the least, moving back and forth between .500, one game above .500, and one game below .500, all in equal measure. As you might therefore expect, the Bills come in to this game with a 6-6 record. They’ve already been knocked out of the running for the AFC East, but they’re just one game behind a wild card spot, with both the current provisional fifth and sixth seeds in the conference, the Chiefs and Jets, sitting at 7-5, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Bills want to stay in the hunt for the postseason, they’ll need a win today, as the Chiefs and Jets are both favourites in their respective matchups, and falling two games behind the wild card spots may be too much for Buffalo to overcome this late in the season. The Eagles, on the other hand, are in a three-way tie at the top of the NFC East. While a loss today wouldn’t be as fatal to their playoff chances as it would be to the Bills – they still have games against Washington and the Giants, who are tied for first with Philly – they don’t want to fall behind, or else they may have to rely on another team to slip up if they want to win the divisional crown.
Keys to the Game
1. Can the Bills get their pass rush going?
Many people expected that Rex Ryan would turn the Bills defense, with its incredibly talented defensive line, into a monster. That’s just not been the case, however, as Ryan has been at times too inflexible with what he wants to do on the field, resulting in some of his defensive line openly and publicly questioning how they’ve been used in Ryan’s scheme. As a result, statistically, the Bills have one of the worst pass defenses when it comes to yardage, touchdowns and sacks. There is one area, however, where the Bills are in the top 10 – interceptions. In fact, it’s the only positive area in passing or rushing defense where the Bills rank in the top 10, so it should be the focus of the Bills’ defensive gameplan – and of course, the best way to force interceptions is by getting heat on the quarterback. If the Bills can tap into that largely-unused potential on their defensive line, they’ll make Sam Bradford’s day miserable, which should result in more hurried throws, playing into the hands of what the Bills’ D do best.
2. Can the Eagles stop Sammy Watkins?
The Eagles defense has been embarrassing at times this season, especially in coverage – in back-to-back weeks, they allowed the Bucs and the Lions to each throw five touchdowns against them. They may have won last weekend against Tom Brady and the Patriots, but they still allowed Brady to pass for just shy of 350 yards. With their secondary allowing such numbers, Sammy Watkins will be licking his lips. The main headline this game will of course be LeSean McCoy’s opportunity to get revenge against Chip Kelly, but Sammy Watkins has talent in spades and will take advantage any weaknesses on the back end of the Philly D. If the Eagles find a way to stop Watkins, however, it will go a long way to improving the Eagles’ chances, as it will allow them to dedicate more of their attention to McCoy. If Watkins is able to produce, then the Eagles will be stretched thin, making it a long day at the Linc.
3. Can Chip take advantage of a weak defense?
As I wrote in the first key to this game, the Bills defense is not doing well this year. Buffalo’s D rank in the bottom 10 for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and yards-per-carry. The only other non-divisional opponent Chip Kelly has left is the Arizona Cardinals, one of the staunchest defenses in this league. Simply put, Kelly won’t have a better opportunity to prove to his team that his scheme can work. There’s been stories all year that the players have stopped buying into Kelly’s system; taking advantage of a weak defense might give the locker room something to believe in heading into the crucial final stretch. Kelly’s offensive system is very much boom-or-bust – either it works to a ‘T’, or it falls apart. He’ll need everyone on board to take on Washington and the Giants in the two weeks to close the season, and if the Eagles cannot take advantage of the opportunity they have today, that might become an impossible task.
Matchup to watch
LeSean McCoy vs Kiko Alonso.
OF COURSE this is the matchup to watch. Alonso was the player that the Bills sent back to Philly in the McCoy trade; now, it’s Alonso who’ll be tasked with meeting McCoy in the hole or covering him in the passing game. After a slow start due to injuries, McCoy has started to get back to form, with three 100+ yard games out of the last five. He may not be quite at the level he was under Kelly’s system, but Greg Roman has definitely worked out how to use McCoy to great effect, and the Bills will be relying on him to take advantage of the Eagles’ 6th-worst run defense. Alonso came out firing as a rookie, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, but after missing all of the 2014 season and five games this season due to injury, hasn’t gotten back to his rookie form. The Eagles will need him to recapture that magic if they’re going to stop McCoy, who’s hell-bent on vengeance.
The Eagles may have caused the upset of the season last weekend when they beat the Patriots, but I can’t see them having the same success against the Bills. There’s just too many holes in the Eagles’ defense that the Bills can take advantage of, not just through McCoy and Watkins, but tight end Charles Clay and receiver Robert Wood, both of whom are also poised to have success against a spotty Philly secondary. The Bills’ defense might be just as porous as the Eagles’, but there just isn’t a legitimate threat on the outside that the Eagles can exploit through the air. If the Eagles had a Sammy Watkins-caliber receiver, then yes, this game might have turned into a track meet, but as it stands, I anticipate another one-sided beat down for the Eagles.