When the Eagles’ schedule came out in April, the Broncos looked like one of the tougher opponents on the slate. But in Week 9 of the regular season, Denver is just another flawed, sub-.500 team visiting Lincoln Financial Field to take on the best team in the NFL.
The 3-4 Broncos aren’t exactly pushovers. They still have one of the toughest defenses in football. They have playmakers at the running back and receiver positions. The franchise is only two years removed from winning a Super Bowl.
The Eagles, on the other hand, will be gunning for their seventh straight win on Sunday, while the Broncos are averaging 12.2 points per game over their last five. Regardless of what we thought six months ago, this is a matchup people expect the Eagles to win now.
There are certainly some areas where Denver might have an edge, but from top to bottom, the Eagles look like the superior team.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for October on Thursday. Brock Osweiler was named the Broncos’ starting quarterback this week amid a three-game losing streak during which the previous starter, Trevor Siemian, committed seven turnovers. This past offseason, the Texans traded Osweiler to the Browns WITH a second-round draft choice in a salary dump. Osweiler subsequently failed to win the starting job in Cleveland of all places, and was released at the conclusion of training camp before finding his way back to Denver, where his NFL career began.
Definitive advantage: Eagles
If Jay Ajayi plays at all for the Eagles this week, it likely will be sparingly, as he needs time to get ingratiated in the offense (see story). The Broncos may boast a better backfield regardless. C.J. Anderson (107 ATT, 469 YDS, 1 TD) might be the most underrated lead back in the league, while Jamaal Charles (50 ATT, 235 YDS, 1 TD) had something left in the tank after all. Devontae Booker has 176 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in four games since returning from injury as well. All three Denver backs are a threat to break a long gain on the ground or as a receiver out of the backfield. Conversely, LeGarrette Blount is the only Eagles back averaging over 4.0 yards per carry this season (4.7).
Wide receivers and tight ends
On paper, this looks easy. Broncos wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have earned seven invitations to the Pro Bowl between them. Yet Eagles tight end Zach Ertz will be the only player on the field Sunday who’s among the NFL’s top 10 players with 43 receptions (8th), 528 yards receiving (10th) and six touchdown catches (T-3rd). In fact, Alshon Jeffery’s numbers are comparable to Thomas’, while Nelson Agholor has easily outpaced Sanders. Some of that falls on Denver’s quarterback play. Either way, the Eagles are getting greater production from a deeper group of targets this season.
Slight advantage: Eagles
Siemian ranked second in the NFL with 25 sacks prior to his benching. That’s partly a quarterback issue as well, but the play up front has not been stellar. Like the Eagles, the Broncos have employed a rotation at left guard at times with Max Garcia and Allen Barbre, only to far less success, while Menelik Watson has struggled at right tackle when healthy. And first-round draft pick Garrett Bolles is already a strong run blocker, but still needs quite a bit of work in protection. So far, so good for the Eagles one week into life without Jason Peters. Halapoulivaati Vaitai held up well at left tackle against the 49ers, although the O-line remains under the microscope until further notice.
Defensive line and linebackers
Sunday will be a meeting between the No. 1 and No. 2 run defenses in the NFL. While the Eagles rank first in terms of yards per game, the Broncos are only allowing a meager 3.0 yards per attempt — second only to the Browns(?!), and nearly a full yard better than the Birds (3.8). Denver lay claim to the most dangerous individual in either front seven as well, Von Miller, who has registered a “quiet” 7.0 sacks so far this season. The Eagles can get penetration from the edge (Brandon Graham) or up the middle (Fletcher Cox), which may be to their advantage, while the linebackers probably are a wash. We’re splitting hairs here.
They call the Broncos secondary the “No-Fly Zone” for a reason. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are without a doubt the best cornerback tandem in the league. And if Talib gets the ball in his hands, watch out — his 10 career interception returns for touchdowns rank fourth in NFL history. With former first-round selection Bradley Roby entering the game in nickel packages, Denver’s defense can get away with playing a ton of man-to-man coverage. The Eagles are getting more than most imagined from corners Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson, and Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are tremendous safeties, but they’re not the No-Fly Zone.
Denver’s special teams haven’t been a strength. Brandon McManus has made only 10 of 15 field goal tries, Riley Dixon has had one punt returned for a touchdown already, and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie has fumbled four times in six games. The Eagles have lost some bodies to injuries, but special teams in all of its phases continues to be a plus week in, week out.
Distinct advantage: Eagles
Doug Pederson is a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate right now. He has the Eagles at 7-1 and firing on all cylinders despite numerous key injuries. Vance Joseph’s first season at the helm for the Broncos is beginning to resemble Pederson’s. Denver got off to a hot start, but is now mired in a losing streak. The difference is a quarterback change — though Siemian has played poorly — feels a little desperate, given who Joseph is turning the job over to. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a second-time head-coaching candidate, so even looking at their staffs, the choice is easy at the moment.
It’s pretty clear where the biggest difference between these two teams lies, and that’s under center. Wentz is developing into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and has played like it during the first half of 2017, while the Broncos are looking to Brock Osweiler to save their season. Defensively, Denver is scary. Offensively, there is no shortage of weapons, but not enough to overcome replacement-level quarterback play. Add special teams and coaching to the mix, not to mention home-field advantage, and the Eagles appear to have the talent to fend off a Broncos squad with some horses of its own.