The 10-1 New England Patriots return home against the 4-7 Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had lofty expectations for the year but have fallen flat. The Eagles have lost three straight games and haven't even looked competitive in the last two. However, that means nothing when the two teams square off on Sunday. The Eagles have plenty of motivation to beat the Patriots, and the Patriots should not take the Eagles lightly or they will not like this game. The Patriots also have plenty of motivation to win this game, because a victory could end up with them wrapping up the AFC East division. That's the first step for the Patriots to clinch Home Field Advantage in the AFC playoffs. Here are the things the Patriots need to do in order to beat the Eagles:
Take Advantage of the Eagles Beat Up Secondary: The Eagles have a terrific safety duo in Walter Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins, but the areas of weakness are at the CB position. The Eagles spent a lot of money to bring in Byron Maxwell from Seattle and so far, he hasn't played up to that hefty contract. The Patriots should be familiar with him, since they went after him in Super Bowl XLIX before the Jeremy Lane injury. On the other side of the field, the Eagles lost their top CB in Nolan Carroll after his ankles got crushed in a pile. They replaced him with rookie Eric Rowe, who I thought the Patriots might have targeted in the draft, but will have a bullseye on him. Rowe has plenty of athleticism, but it's mostly untapped due to inexperience and a lack of developed instincts at the position. The Lions targeted him regularly when Calvin Johnson lined up across from him to great success. The Patriots don't have that kind of receiver, but they can still take advantage with Brandon LaFell lining up on that side.
Take Away the Running Game: The Eagles running game features Demarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, with Murray operating inside the tackles while Mathews has the speed to bounce it out for big gains. While the edge defenders shouldn't have too much issue with containing Murray, the game changes with Mathews in there. The Patriots cannot afford to let the Eagles run the ball like the Broncos did against them in the 2nd half and in overtime last week. If the Patriots take away that part of the game, that forces the Eagles to beat them with Mark Sanchez or Sam Bradford. Both QBs have struggled this year and the Patriots coverage should be able to handle the Eagles receivers fine.
Don't Let Philly Accumulate First Downs: If there is one trick to Chip Kelly's offense, it's designed to wear out their opponents with a very fast tempo. This is a double-edged sword for them, depending on how they are able to pick up first downs. If the Eagles are able to pick up first downs, that will quickly wear out the Patriots defense and if they aren't able to, that will quickly wear out the Eagles defense. If the Patriots can force Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez throw into tight windows and later in the progression, that should create opportunities for the Patriots to force turnovers and really ruin the Eagles' day. The Patriots can also prevent Philly from accumulating first downs by possessing the ball, although the Eagles front can be tricky to deal with from the early portions of the game.
For a final score prediction, I have the Patriots winning this game 28-17 and win the AFC East division on Sunday. The Patriots will likely not much of their offensive weapons for the game, but I do expect Scott Chandler, Keshawn Martin, and Brandon LaFell to get opportunities in this game to prove that they can be reliable for the Patriots in the run down to clinching Home Field and get opportunities in the playoffs. LaFell probably doesn't need to earn that trust since he already has it. The Patriots should be able to force the Eagles to throw 3rd and Long and create a couple of turnovers to swing their way. Hopefully Brady can prove that he can function with a group of cast-offs so they have more weapons for the playoff run.