Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Giant challenge: Eagles try to halt skid

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 10

Thursday night’s games against the Giants (8:20 pm.) feels like a must win. In the standings, however, it’s not a must win. How can the sixth game of the season be a must win in the only division in the NFL without a team with a winning record?

Even if they lose Thursday, the Eagles have plenty of time to rise up and win the NFC East. Thursday’s game against the last-place Giants (1-4) is their first game against an NFC opponent. The Eagles have two games remaining against both the Redskins and Cowboys, so they will have opportunities to gain ground.

From a psychological perspective, however, Thursday’s game might be a must win.

A loss Thursday would be the Eagles’ third straight defeat and their fourth in the past five games. They haven’t played a good game all season. A loss Thursday would be a psychological blow because the Eagles have beaten the Giants seven times in their last eight meetings. Be forewarned: the four of the last five Eagles-Giants games have been decided by five points. The other one, an Eagles 3-point triumph, was Jake Elliott’s famous 61-yard field as time expired, a victory that many point to as the spark that started the Eagles down their path to the Super Bowl.

History, of course, won’t have any bearing on Thursday’s game. It’s a battle of two teams desperate for a win.

Here are 10 questions to consider prior to and during Sunday’s game.

Why is Thursday’s game important?

The Eagles (2-3) need a bounce-back win after an overtime loss to the Titans and a home loss to the Vikings, piercing their aura of invincibility at Lincoln Financial Field. A third straight loss, especially with the Panthers and Jaguars (in London) lined up for the next two games, would put the Super Bowl champions on the verge of having their hopes of repeating extinguished almost before they begin.

How much will the loss of Jay Ajayi hurt the Eagles?

The absence of Ajayi, lost for the season due to a torn ACL suffered against the Vikings, will hurt the Eagles. With Darren Sproles expected to miss his fifth straight game due to a hamstring injury, the Eagles are left with Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and rookie Josh Adams at running back. Smallwood has played surprisingly well this season, but is Pederson willing to trust him to be the No. 1 back? Clement is expected to play after missing two games due to a quadriceps injury. (He was active against the Vikings, but didn’t play.) Despite assurances from head coach Doug Pederson Clement is “100 percent,” are we to believe that Clement is healthy just four days after he didn’t play in a game in which the Eagles desperately needed a spark on offense?

What should be the Eagles’ biggest concern?

The Giants have very good receivers in Odell Beckham (39 catches for 462 yards, TD) and Sterling Shepard (28 catches for 274 yards, 2 TDs). The Eagles have had a propensity for allowing big plays this season. With safety Rodney McLeod on injured reserve due to a knee injury, rookie Avonte Maddox has moved into the starting lineup. Corey Graham will miss Thursday’s game due to a hamstring injury, which further depletes the Eagles’ depth at safety. Somebody is going to have to provide cornerback Jalen “toast” Mills with some help on deep balls to Beckham and Shepard.

How can the Eagles slow down the Giants’ passing game?

The simple answer is by pressuring quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants’ offensive line isn’t very good. The Eagles should be able to generate enough pressure to reduce the time the cornerbacks need to stick with the Giants’ receivers. With only eight sacks in their past four games, and with defensive end Derek Barnett returning Thursday after missing Sunday’s loss to the Vikings due to a shoulder injury, it’s time for the defensive line to have a dominating week.

Are there other worries for the Eagles defense?

The Eagles should be concerned about rookie running back Saquon Barkley. The Giants throw almost twice as often as they run the ball, although that’s partially because they’ve been playing from behind so often. With their shaky offensive line and the Eagles’ terrific run defense, don’t expect Barkley (71 carries for 308 yards, 3 TDs) and the Giants to run the ball down the Eagles’ throats. However, the multi-talented Barkley can also hurt defenses as a receiver as well. The rookie from Penn State has caught 31 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns this season. The Eagles must keep a close eye on Barkley coming out of the backfield to be a receiver.

What’s wrong with the Eagles’ offensive line?

Nobody knows the answer. But it’s clear the offensive line isn’t playing as one of the NFL’s best units. Age may be catching up with left tackle Jason Peters, who must battle through nagging injuries each week just to play the whole game. Right tackle Lane Johnson, who was a full participant in practice Wednesday after being limited in Tuesday’s practice by an ankle injury, has given up important sacks the past two weeks. The interior of the line hasn’t been good, either, particularly in pass protection. Ivan Seumalo certainly didn’t look like much of an improvement over Stefen Wisniewski at left guard last Sunday against the Vikings.

Is the longest we’ve gone without asking about Carson Wentz in a week in which he is healthy?

I’ll have to get my staff to see if we’ve set a new standard, but better late than never. Wentz displays flashes of his old form, especially when escaping onrushing defensive linemen. What he hasn’t been, though, is sharp on third down or in the red zone. To be fair to Wentz, he doesn’t have a full complement of offensive weapons, and the loss of Ajayi isn’t going to help.

What can Doug Pederson do to fix the offense?

Pederson can start by running the ball more often. Left guard Isaac Seumalo is certainly a better run blocker than pass protector. The rest of the line seems to be better at run blocking than pass blocking as well. Running the ball more often should also reduce opportunities for opposing defenses to hit Wentz. Running the ball more often should also protect Wentz by making opposing defenses respect the run enough that play-action fakes by Wentz will force at least a few defenders to defend the run. One explanation for Pederson’s reluctance to run the ball is that the Eagles are short on healthy running backs.

Who is D.J. Alexander and why might his absence matter?

The absence of Alexander (quadriceps injury) and fellow linebacker Nathan Gerry depletes the Eagles’ depth at linebacker, but it also affects special teams coverage. The good news is that, with kickoffs almost an automatic touchback with Jake Elliott kicking off and Cameron Johnston bombing punts, there aren’t many opportunities for runbacks against the Eagles.

Doesn’t the Giants’ head coach look familiar?

Pat Shurmur spent three seasons as Eagles head coach – and one game as head coach after Chip Kelly was fired – before becoming the Vikings’ offensive coordinator. After two seasons with the Vikings, Shurmur became the Giants’ head coach this season.

Prediction: The Eagles appear ripe for an upset. They aren’t playing well, they just lost their top running back for the rest of the season and their secondary appears highly vulnerable. The Giants have receivers that the Eagles’ cornerback shouldn’t be able to handle. But I look at the offensive and defensive lines and wonder how the Eagles could lose the game. They certainly could lose this game. But I don’t think they will. Eagles 24, Giants 20

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