Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Eagles enjoy familiar underdog role

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 5

The Eagles won five of their final six games to earn an opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title during the postseason. Even so, the Eagles only made the playoffs because their first-round playoff opponent, the Bears, defeated the Vikings on the final day of the regular-season.

The Bears may regret giving the Eagles new life in their quest to become the first team in 14 years to repeat as Super Bowl champion, but they are 6½-point favorites over the Birds on Sunday (4:40 p.m.) at Soldier Field. The Eagles, of course, don’t mind being underdogs. They rallied around the underdog image last season, when they were underdogs in every one of their playoff games.

Although the Eagles’ turnaround after starting the season 4-6 has received a lot of attention, the Bears’ 9-1 record since starting the season 3-3 has been overlooked. The Bears’ only loss during the stretch came against the Giants, but it should be noted that former Eagles backup Chase Daniel was the starting quarterback in that game.

Daniel is far from the only player with an Eagles-Bears connection. Bears tight end Trey Burton was an integral part of the Philly Special in last season’s Super Bowl. Cody Parkey was the Eagles’ kicker. Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery spent five seasons with the Bears.

As far as story lines, there is none better than Nick Foles once again leading the Eagles into the playoffs after Carson Wentz was injured. Foles, whose incredible NFL journey has been well-documented, led the Eagles to three straight victories at the end of the season, including win over the Rams and Texans. Unlike at the start of last season’s playoffs, nobody should be doubting Foles.

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

How good is Nick Foles?

Foles set a franchise record two weeks ago with 471 passing yards during the Eagles’ 32-30 win over the Texans. Last week he tied an NFL record with 25 straight completions during the Eagles’ 24-0 win over the Redskins. Against the Bears’ excellent defense, it will be difficult for Foles to have a record-setting performance for a third straight week, but nobody should underestimate last season’s Super Bowl MVP.

How good is the Bears defense?

The Bears led the NFL in forced turnovers (36), interceptions (27), interception returns for a touchdown (5), the fewest average rushing yards (80), the fewest rushing touchdowns (5) and lowest passer rating (72.9). Three defensive players – linebacker Khalil Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson – were named to the All-Pro first team. Jackson, who is trying to return from an ankle injury, is going to be a game-time decision.

Who are the most underrated members of the Bears defense?

Linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan didn’t make the All-Pro team, but they are the two leading tacklers for the Bears. Smith, the eighth pick in the NFL Draft, leads the Bears with 121 tackles, including five sacks. Trevathan is second on the team with 102 tackles.

What can the Eagles do to succeed against the Bears defense?

The answer is to run the ball effectively, but that’s easier said than done. The Eagles will use Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles against a defense that has shut down marquee running backs such as the Rams’ Todd Gurley, the Bills’ LeSean McCoy and the Cardinals’ David Johnson. If the Eagles don’t establish the run, the Bears can unleash a pass rush that picked up 50 sacks this season. Perhaps a better method to slow down the pass rush might be quick passes. Nick Foles has been getting rid of the ball quickly since regaining the starting role.

What is the biggest danger for the Eagles offense?

The biggest danger is that Khalil Mack (12½ sacks) and Akeem Hicks (7½ sacks) produce pressure on Foles. A big hit or two to Foles’ bruised ribs could force Foles to get rush his passes, which would play into the hands of the Bears’ turnover-producing defense, led by Kyle Fuller’s seven interceptions.  In a worst-case scenario, Foles would be knocked out of the game, forcing the Eagles to put their fate in Nate Sudfeld’s hands.

Who will be the best defensive player on the field?

Although many might immediately answer that it’s Khalil Mack, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox might be the correct answer. Cox has 10½ sacks and has been a disruptive force despite facing nearly constant double teams. Cox has been particularly dominant during the final month of the season.

How much does the coaching familiarity matter?

Doug Pederson and Bears head coach Matt Nagy served together under Andy Reid with both the Eagles and the Chiefs. With the Chiefs, Pederson was the offensive coordinator and Nagy was the quarterbacks coach, so they worked closely together. They are both familiar with the other coach’s thought patterns and tendencies, so this matchup is a draw.

Where are the Bears vulnerable?

The Eagles might have an advantage with their defense against the Bears’ offense. Jordan Howard has rushed for 935 yards on 250 carries. Tarik Cohen provides a change of pace, running for 444 yards on 99 carries. If the Eagles can shut down the Bears’ running game and force quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to throw on obvious passing downs, the Eagles’ rejuvenated pass rush could produce sacks or turnovers. One thing to beware of is Trubisky’s ability to run. He has gained 421 yards on 68 carries, including 31 runs for first downs.

Which player can the Eagles remove as a factor?

Tarik Cohen was selected to the All-Pro team as a punt returner. If punter Cam Johnston can continue his fine season, it should neutralize Cohen’s impact on special teams by allowing him few returns and giving him little time and space to make plays.

Where do the Eagles have an obvious advantage?

The Eagles appear to have an advantage at kicker. Jake Elliott has had a better season than former Eagle Cody Parkey, who has missed seven field goals, including three from less than 40 yards. Both Parkey and Elliott have been erratic with extra points.

Prediction: Both teams’ defenses seem to have an advantage over the opposing offense. Both teams might have difficulty running the ball, but the Eagles offense is becoming more efficient with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles are improving on both offense and defense, which is a good sign. On the other hand, Nick Foles is playing with bruised ribs against a punishing Bears defense. Foles gives the Eagles a chance, but the Bears defense might be too good to overcome. Bears 24, Eagles 23

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