Eagles Face Gut Check And Bills In Week 5 by Matt Lombardo

Jason Babin leads the league with seven sacks, but it hasn’t been enough to help the Eagles close out games. At 1-3, the Eagles season hangs precariously in the balance when they take to Ralph Wilson Stadium to take on a Buffalo Bills team that enters at 3-1.  

Last Sunday after the Eagles managed to turn a 20-point third quarter lead into a one-point loss, Michael Vick spent his post game press conference talking about it being ‘Gut Check Time’ for the supposed ‘Dream Team’.

“Certain times in the game you have to gut check,” Vick said. “I’ve been there plenty of times, played in enough games in this league to know when it’s time to gut check. Everybody has to have that.”

For the Philadelphia Eagles who are now 1-3, in the midst of its first three game losing streak since 2007 and having been outscored 36-0 in each of the last three fourth quarters, the time to gut check for the season is clearly now. With as much talent that has been assembled in recent memory on any team in the span of one offseason at their disposal, the Eagles have played well enough to reside alone in the NFC east’s basement.

Since 1990 when the current NFL Playoff format began, only 22 teams have overcome 1-3 starts to be amongst the 240 teams that made the playoffs, and no team since the 2008 Patriots. Meanwhile, only five teams have started 1-4 and turned it around to make the postseason.

That’s the gut check the Eagles face when they kick off against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon at 1pm.

When the schedule makers released this year’s slate of games, many prognosticators and fans used fire-engine red ink to mark this as an Eagles ‘W’. However, this team now has shown the inability to close out games and appears to get complacent when they build up a big lead. Meanwhile, The Bills enter at 3-1, intending to shed the ‘Cinderella Story’ moniker and emerge as true contenders.

Beating the Eagles and driving a stake into the heart of the perceived ‘Dream Team’ would go a long way towards putting Chan Galey and the Bills legitimately into the playoff conversation.

Buffalo presents several matchup hiccups for an Eagles team that is still after a quarter of a season trying to forge an identity, and hasn’t yet adjusted to gaps in scheme or personnel.

Fred Jackson has emerged as a premier running back this season or the Bills, averaging 95 yards per game and scoring four touchdowns while racking up a 5.8 yards per carry average. Jackson could run wild against an Eagles defense that ranks 30th in the league against the rush giving up an average of 140 yards per game. The Eagles simply don’t have the linebackers capable of closing the gaps created by the wide nine defensive line alignment employed by line coach Jim Washburn.

It won’t get much easier for the Eagles through the air. Alex Smith was surgical against the Birds last week, in the second half especially when the Eagles defense made Smith look like Joe Montana, completing 21 of his 33 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns. True he was sacked three times, but he found the seams in the Eagles cover two late in the game making some of his biggest throws in the game’s biggest moments.

This week Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will face a Birds defensive line that is depleted by injuries. Trent Cole and his three sacks will be sidelined. Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp are both questionable, which would further deplete an Eagles pass rush that has been the lone bright spot of this defense. Take away the pressure from the front four and this would likely be a defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league based on production and points allowed.

Fitzpatrick enters with nine touchdowns and just three interceptions to go with his 1,040 yards through the first quarter of the season. The Harvard grad is one of the brightest minds at the quarterback position and he protects the ball very well. The Eagles have struggled to produce turnovers through the first four games, with a turnover ratio of -6. The Bills signal caller has two solid receiving options in Stevie Johnson and David Nelson.

Just how good has Fitzpatrick been this season? His quarterback rating against the blitz is 111. That’s good enough for third in the league behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles have been blitzing less this season than in years past, but without Cole and a weakened edge rush the Birds may need to resort to bringing the heat to slow down the Bills.

On top of the mismatches the Bills present, the Eagles have issues of their own entering this game. Offensively Michael Vick has been far from stellar in the first four games of the season. He is now 1-5 in his last six starts dating back to last season with a completion percentage of just 61.

Sure Vick has made plays this season and made his share of highlight runs. However, the issue for the Eagles are the plays that he left on the field. He has ignored Brent Celek each of the last two weeks, especially in the red zone. Meanwhile on his 24 yard scramble against the 49ers last week, Jason Avant was wide open 35 yards down the field and Vick never even gave him a glance. Number seven, simply is not going through his progressions right now and it appears as if he has regressed back to the league that he appeared far athletically superior to through most of 2010.

Then there’s the curious case of this team’s inability to close out games. Like a track star that builds a lead against the field and coasts through the last ten meters, the Eagles simply lack the killer instinct to put teams away. No lead is safe for this team, whether the offense attempts to run out the clock, or throws the ball 25 times in the final 22 minutes as was the case against the 49ers in week four.

The Eagles season very well could be on the line this Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Cullen Jenkins who knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl, earning a ring with the Packers last season called out his teammates this week.

“The biggest thing that we’re missing here is attitude,” Jenkins said last week. “You look around and look how people are when things are going bad, and you see there’s not that fire, there’s not that attitude or that mental toughness that you know you’re going to make it happen.”

It takes attitude to win on the road, especially against a team that’s gunning for a playoff spot like the Bills are out of the gate.

ML’s Pick: Even with all of the talent that was assembled by the Eagles front office during the truncated offseason, this team lacks the intangibles necessary to finish games even with double digit leads. A quarter of the season is in the record books and the personnel has not be adjusted to fit the schemes defensively or vice-versa. The Bills are a dangerous team and the Eagles have struggled on the road against AFC teams under Andy Reid. Until this team finds a way to win a tough game, or an easy game for that matter, I can’t pick them. Bills win 27-24

Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat  reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email at MDLombardo@yahoo.com

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