The Philadelphia Eagles did not enter this season as a popular pick to win the NFC. Football Outsiders projected them to finish third in the NFC East. Yahoo Sports said the same, noting that Washington might also finish ahead of Philly. Five of six analysts at CBS Sports thought they'd finish in second or third place in the division, and none of them pegged the Eagles as an NFC Wild Card team.
Not many were about to call the Eagles a Super Bowl team, let alone a division winner (credit to Joe Giglio for doing so), but on Sunday they blew those expectations away by beating the Rams 43-35 and clinching the NFC East. Unfortunately, the expectations that Philadelphia might be making a trip to Minnesota in February were perhaps equally vaporized this week with the news that quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a torn ACL attempting to run for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
My condolences to anyone who thinks they can ever comfortably rely on expectations in the NFL.
Nick Foles will be starting for the Eagles for the first time since 2014, a significant blow to their Super Bowl hopes. Philadelphia showed itself as a team good enough to beat the Rams on the road, but Wentz also threw four touchdown passes. Are the Eagles balanced enough to withstand losing a Pro Bowl quarterback? Few teams have ever been that good. There's your Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson types, but those teams had historic defenses. Then you've got the two Super Bowl rings that belong to Eli Manning, who was perhaps the best combination of being a decent quarterback with some phenomenal moments on the biggest stage. Foles is not Eli Manning. And the Eagles' defense is not the 2000 Ravens.
The Eagles rank sixth in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed, first in rushing yards allowed and fourth in net yards per pass attempt allowed. Football Outsiders ranked them third on defense and fourth on offense before they beat the Rams, but a third-ranked defense during one season is not the same as being a No. 1 defense that people will talk about for years. The Eagles are solid against both the pass and the run, but great quarterbacks can pass on them: Alex Smith and Russell Wilson both beat Philadelphia, Jared Goff had a rating over 110, Philip Rivers had 347 yards and two touchdowns and Carson Palmer had 291 yards and a touchdown. They can't claim to have a shutdown secondary like the 2013 Seahawks.
How will that serve them if they're facing Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Goff, or Wilson in the playoffs?
If the Eagles want to win the Super Bowl this year, they're going to have to start playing like -- and I can't believe these words are about to be said -- the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars have the NFL's best defense and secondary, potentially lining up to be as good as the Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Seattle defenses already mentioned. They also have Leonard Fournette, who is a talent at running back unlike anything the Eagles currently have. With those pieces, Jacksonville is good enough to win in the playoffs with Blake Bortles.
But Philadelphia is probably not good enough to win a Super Bowl with Foles.
Part of that hopelessness may lie in the dozen or so examples of a team losing their starting quarterbacks late in a run to the playoff. Not once in the 2000s has a team made a Super Bowl after losing its starting quarterback in the second half of the season. We've seen the 2001 Patriots and 1999 Rams win championships with quarterbacks who had to replace the starter at the beginning of the season, and we know of guys like Jeff Hostetler, who led the 1990 Giants to a Super Bowl win with a perfect postseason performance. But it's difficult.
Let's look at the recent examples of teams that lost their QBs late in the year, most of which didn't make it past the Wild Card round.
2016 Miami Dolphins: Matt Moore replaces Ryan Tannehill
For a while, it was speculated that Wentz may have only strained his ACL like Tannehill did a year earlier, but unfortunately that was not the case. Tannehill hurt his knee almost exactly one year ago in a win over the Cardinals that improved Miami to 8-5, and it was thought that he might even be able to return if the Dolphins made it deep enough into the playoffs. Instead, Moore went 2-1 (the loss was Tom Brady's only win in his last five trips to Miami) in the regular season and turned it over three times in a 30-12 Wild Card loss to the Steelers.
Reason for Hope: Miami had a mediocre defense and average offense, one that was not nearly as good as the Eagles'
2016 Oakland Raiders: Connor Cook replaces Matt McGloin who replaces Derek Carr
The Raiders were an incredible 12-3 when Carr broke his fibula in a 33-25 win over the Colts. That forced McGloin into action, and he made one start against the Broncos before exiting after only 11 passes because of a shoulder injury. Cook, a fourth-round rookie, went 18-of-45 for 161 yards and three interceptions in a Wild Card loss to the Texans. He'll likely retire with the distinction of being the only quarterback to ever lose a playoff start to Brock Osweiler.
Reason for Hope: Oakland's defense was bad and they couldn't run the ball
2015 Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron replaces Andy Dalton
Dalton broke his thumb early in a 33-20 loss to the Steelers in mid-December, dropping Cincinnati to 10-3. He was replaced by McCarron, who looked decent with 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. McCarron avoided disaster by going 2-1 in the final three games, including an overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos. His reward: a rematch against those same Steelers he debuted against. The Bengals played much better and took a 16-15 lead late in the game on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green, but a Jeremy Hill fumble, a fourth-and-three conversion and 30 yards of penalties by Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones gave Pittsburgh an 18-16 win.
Reason for Hope: The Eagles are hopefully much more well-tempered than the Bengals
2014 Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Lindley replaces Drew Stanton replaces Carson Palmer
Arizona went 6-0 with Palmer, but he missed three games with a shoulder injury before returning and tearing his ACL. They then went 5-3 with Stanton, who also suffered a knee injury. There was then no hope when Lindley took over. He was 0-2 in the regular season and then had one of the worst postseason games ever (28 attempts, 82 yards, two interceptions) in a 27-16 Wild Card loss to the Panthers.
Reason for Hope: Lindley has always struggled and Foles was actually pretty good once
2012 Minnesota Vikings: Joe Webb replaces Christian Ponder
It's hard to claim that the Vikings lost a great quarterback when Ponder ruled himself out before Minnesota's Wild Card game against the Packers five years ago, but they did lose the quarterback who threw every single pass for them in 2012. Webb came in and completed only 11 of 30 passes for one touchdown, one interception and one fumble. The Vikings lost, 24-10.
Reason for Hope: Foles is much more experienced than Webb and also knows he's going to be starting a playoff game more than 90 minutes before it begins
2011 Houston Texans: T.J. Yates replaces Matt Leinart replaces Matt Schaub
When Schaub was still a desirable option at quarterback, he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 10 vs the Bucs. In his first start in place of Schaub, Leinart broke his collarbone and was replaced by Yates, who helped the Texans beat the Jaguars that day, then the next two games after to get Houston to 10-3. The Texans dropped their last three games but still won the AFC South, hosting and beating the Bengals 31-10. The Texans nearly even won the divisional game against the Ravens in Baltimore, but Yates threw three interceptions -- including two in the fourth quarter -- as Houston lost, 20-13.
Reason for Hope: The Texans actually had a defense and run game comparable to what the Eagles have, but a title run will require Foles to be much better than Yates. That is probable.
2008 Minnesota Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson replaces Gus Frerotte
It's hard to believe that Frerotte was a team's starter as recently as 2008, but he led the Vikings to an 8-3 start that season after replacing Jackson in Week 3. Frerotte had a back injury in Week 14, however, and was re-replaced by Jackson, who led Minnesota to a come-from-behind win against the Lions. He won two of his next three starts before a 26-14 loss to the Eagles in the Wild Card round.
Reason for Hope: At least Foles wasn't benched within the last three months
2007 Washington: Todd Collins replaces Jason Campbell
Collins had last started a game in 1997 for the Bills when he replaced Campbell for the final three games of the 2007 regular season. Collins remarkably won all three of those starts but Washington lost 35-14 in the Wild Card round.
Reason for Hope: The new guy hasn't taken a decade off
2006 Philadelphia Eagles: Jeff Garcia replaces Donovan McNabb
Before there was Wentz there was McNabb, but the Eagles were just 5-5 when he tore his ACL against the Titans. Garcia returned to his three-time Pro Bowl roots with the 49ers and went 5-1 as a starter, followed by a 23-20 Wild Card win over the Giants. Philly then traveled to New Orleans and trailed the Saints by just three points in the fourth quarter, but Garcia went 2-of-5 for -3 yards on his final five throws in the loss.
Reason for Hope: Those Eagles weren't even that good with their original starter and Garcia magic had to run out eventually
2005 Cincinnati Bengals: Jon Kitna replaces Carson Palmer
Though this injury technically occurred in the playoffs, it should still be noted because Palmer tore his ACL after just one throw (for 66 yards) in the Wild Card round. Kitna helped the Bengals take a 17-7 lead, but the Steelers scored the last 24 points of the game.
Reason for Hope: The Wentz injury didn't bite them after the playoffs had already begun
2002 Cleveland Browns: Kelly Holcomb replaces Tim Couch
It's hard to believe that the Browns and Tim Couch are mentioned on this list, but 15 years is a long time. Couch actually went 8-6 as a starter, including the season finale in which he was injured. Holcomb led Cleveland to a fourth-quarter comeback against the Falcons, securing a Wild Card berth for the Browns. In the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh, the Browns led 33-21 with just over five minutes remaining but disaster ensued as the Steelers came back to win 36-33.
Reason for Hope: A Browns postseason appearance is fun, but this was not a good team
2000 New Orleans Saints: Aaron Brooks replaces Jeff Blake
Blake signed with New Orleans after six seasons with the Bengals and started the first 11 games, going 7-3 before a broken foot forced him out early in a game against the Raiders. Brooks, who backed up Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck in Green Bay before getting traded to the Saints in 2000, led his team to wins in three of their last five games, including two game-winning drives. Brooks threw four touchdowns in a 31-28 Wild Card win over the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams, but they got blown out on the road in Minnesota a week later.
Reason for Hope: The Saints were 3-13 in 1999 and played way above their heads in 2000. The Eagles may be playing slightly over their heads on offense, but they're still a very good team even with an average QB.