The Eagles and the Cardinals may be close in the standings, but have the looks of two teams going in different directions. The Eagles feel like they are on the rise, while the Cardinals are just trying to weather a really bad storm.
That might seem unfair, but consider the circumstances. The Eagles are 3-1, winners of two straight and two of three on the road to begin the 2017 season. Arizona is 2-2, with both victories coming in overtime, against teams with one win combined.
This wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the case when the season began. There was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the Eagles. The Cardinals were supposed to be better than this. Where exactly is the divide?
It’s a battle of Carsons under center. Carson Wentz is having the much better season than Carson Palmer thus far. Wentz has a higher completion percentage (60.5 to 59.0), yards per reception (7.2 to 7.0) and fewer turnovers (3 to 5) through four games, not to mention brings mobility to the table. Palmer is stuck behind a crummy offensive line, which may be largely to blame for his struggles this season, but he’s also a statue in the pocket and approaching 38 years old in December. At this stage of their careers, Wentz is the more dynamic of the two.
Very slight edge: Eagles
Both clubs are down a back, but the Cardinals losing David Johnson is a much bigger deal than the Eagles losing Darren Sproles. Johnson had become the key component of Arizona’s offense, leading the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2016. The likes of Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington can’t begin to replace that. The Eagles could be minus Wendell Smallwood as well, but got LeGarrette Blount back on track the last two weeks. Blount is the most effective back on the field, perhaps followed by Corey Clement, also for the Birds.
WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
Statistically speaking, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is the most productive player on either side, but Cardinals slot receiver Larry Fitzgerald isn’t far behind. Ertz has the edge in yards (326 to 276), Fitzgerald in touchdowns (2 to 1). The comparison boils down to which supporting cast is better. In terms of name recognition, that would be the Eagles with Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith. Arizona has a ton of speed on the outside, though, between J.J. Nelson, Jaron Brown and John Brown. It’s close, but the Eagles’ targets are a bit more versatile.
Very slight edge: Eagles
There’s really no comparison. The Eagles' offensive line has been living up to its reputation as one of the best in the NFL the past few weeks, protecting Wentz and paving the way for backs. The Cardinals' O-line is working on getting their senior citizen quarterback killed and has been unable to open up holes for ball carriers — not even David Johnson. Injuries are certainly part of the problem. Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (knee) hasn’t practiced all week, while starting left guard Alex Boone (chest) has been limited.
Very distinct edge: Eagles
DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
Chandler Jones is a monster. With 4.0 sacks, eight tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits, the Cardinals' outside linebacker has been more disruptive in opposing backfields than anybody in an Eagles uniform. Meanwhile, Fletcher Cox is out again for the Birds, so it’s up to Brandon Graham and Tim Jernigan to provide the bulk of the push. Still, the Birds are deeper in the trenches, and perhaps superior overall, measuring up better both against the run (70.8 yards per game to 88.0) and in sacks (10 to 9).
Slight edge: Eagles
The Eagles are certainly susceptible to the big play, especially through the air. It might make sense to play more two-deep safety and keep Malcolm Jenkins back deep against a speedy receiving corps, granted that will take away from what makes him special. Unfortunately, the secondary just doesn’t have anybody like Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals’ shutdown cover man who can take the opponent’s best receiver out of the game. The rest of Arizona’s cornerbacks aren’t so great, but you don’t see the unit surrendering 80-yard touchdowns on a weekly basis, either.
Slight edge: Cardinals
The Cardinals have absolutely no return game to speak of, and kicker Phil Dawson has been less than stellar from mid-range. Even without Sproles, the Eagles’ return units are dangerous, and Jake Elliott is just beginning to find his groove, nailing four field goals from long distance last week. The punters are comparable, but the Eagles’ coverage teams are also superior.
Doug Pederson might be starting to win some people over in Philly, but he still has a long way to go to have a resume like Bruce Arians. Arians was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2012 and ’14 and picked up two Super Bowl rings as an assistant. His career is winding down, but it’s been a tremendous run, even speaking specifically for his time with the Cardinals. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is an easy choice over the relatively inexperienced James Bettcher on the opposing sideline, yet Arians still gets the nod.
Very slight edge: Cardinals
At full health, these two teams might stack up pretty close. Of course, the NFL is a war of attrition, where nobody is ever at full health, and in this case, the Cardinals are more shorthanded. The offense is missing one of the best players in the entire league and multiple offensive linemen, and an aging quarterback simply can’t compensate. Add that Arizona has to travel, and an Eagles squad that’s playing at the level we’ve seen through four weeks should be able to dispatch of a weakened and vulnerable opponent.