Last season, the Eagles entered the year publicly talking about Super Bowl expectations after an offseason that brought in six former Pro Bowl players. But they fell flat on their face, starting the year with records of 1-4 and 4-8, and blowing five leads in the fourth quarter, including an NFL-record four at home.
This past offseason, the Eagles righted some wrongs from last year, signing their homegrown players to contract extensions, instead of big-name free agents. They locked up running back LeSean McCoy, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, left guard Evan Mathis, right tackle Todd Herremans, and defensive end Trent Cole.
They head into the 2012 season full of confidence, despite the brutal 2011 season that still remains at large in the memories of the players. The Eagles need to get off to a fast start in 2012 to save the jobs of both head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Michael Vick. Neither is guaranteed to come back in 2012 if the franchise doesn’t win.
The Browns are a completely different team. They’re in the rebuilding phase. They have new ownership, a new quarterback, and a new running back. Nobody expects them to finish anything but last in the AFC North this year, and it would be considered a success if they won six games this season.
That being said, here are three keys to winning the game for the Eagles.
1. Effective ground game.
The Eagles are one of the more underrated rushing teams in the league. How many fans could tell you that they finished in the top ten in all-time single-season rushing average in each of the past two seasons?
The Browns actually have a solid defense, contrary to what many think. They did rank fifth in the league in points allowed in 2011.
If the Eagles can take an early lead and then establish the ground game through LeSean McCoy, and possibly rookie running backs Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, then consider this one over quickly.
But if the Browns stop the run and force Vick into throwing incompletions, they’ll be able to control the clock and establish their ground game behind rookie Trent Richardson.
2. Get after Brandon Weeden.
Weeden, a 28-year old rookie quarterback making his first-ever NFL start against the Eagles, is not expected to have a memorable debut. The last time the Eagles played a rookie quarterback making his first-ever start was in 1977 against Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Randy Hedberg, and all you need to do is look at his statistics that year to know whether he had success against Philly.
The Eagles have an incredible defensive line, leading the league in sacks last season (and again this preseason, despite Jason Babin not playing due to a calf strain). I’d be surprised if the Eagles collected fewer than five sacks. My official prediction was seven. It could be a very long day for Weeden.
3. Don’t let special teams be the difference.
If there’s one place the Browns could beat you, it’s special teams.
Return man Josh Cribbs is always capable of taking one back for a score. Phil Dawson is a veteran kicker and has made some big kicks with the game on the line.
And the Eagles will have rookies at both kick and punt returner. Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson both look like they’re going to be studs, based on the preseason, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see either make a big mistake tomorrow, notably a fumble. The Eagles also have a second-year kicker, Alex Henery, who has not come close to kicking a clutch field goal, despite setting a record for rookie field goal percentage in 2011.
I expect the Eagles to win this game big. My official prediction was 28-9 and I am going to stick with that. I have the Eagles collecting seven sacks, two interceptions (with Mychal Kendricks returning one for a touchdown on the first play of Weeden’s career), and a forced fumble.
I think Richardson will be mostly a non-factor. I expect a game like this to be over by the middle of the second quarter. It should be a good start to a hopefully very promising Eagles’ season.
This article was written by Bryn Swartz, the top writer for the Philadelphia Eagles and a featured NFL columnist on Rant Sports. Bryn has written more than 1000 articles in less than two years as a member of Rant Sports. His blog, Eagles Central, was named the 2010 Ballhyped Sports Blog of the Year. You can follow Bryn on Twitter by clicking here and here. To read a portfolio of Bryn’s best work, click here.