WASHINGTON — It’s ironic that the Philadelphia Eagles chose Sunday to make such a loud statement regarding their return to the top of the NFC East heap. Because the team they throttled at Lincoln Financial Field is the very same franchise they currently resemble.
After watching the dust settle from the Eagles’ convincing 34-3 beat down of the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Steelers, it dawned on me: This Philly team smells a lot like the 2004 Steelers. In case you’ve forgotten that team, allow me to refresh your memory.
Thirteen years ago, Pittsburgh was a disappointing 6-10 team that suffered key injuries, had a defense that fell to the middle of the pack and an offense that was oddly reliant on Tommy Maddox. This made a proud franchise that historically hung its hat on smashmouth football look more like an Arena League team trying to compete in the NFL.
Things changed in 2004. The Steelers led the league in scoring defense, the running game was back to form and rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — the 11th overall pick, who was supposed to be the backup — came in for an injured Maddox in Week 2. He proceeded to complete 66 percent of his passes and go 13-0 as the starter, en route to a franchise-record 15-1 regular season finish. Pittsburgh would go on to host the AFC title game for the fifth time in 11 years (but lost the conference championship game for the fourth time in that same span, this time to the eventual champion Patriots by two touchdowns).
Fast forward to the present-day Eagles. Their fourth-ranked defense in total yardage has allowed only nine points per game (easily the fewest in the league) and has six takeaways, tied for the fifth most in the league so far. Like Roethlisberger, Carson Wentz is making history in a season he wasn’t supposed to start. Wentz is the first rookie QB to avoid throwing an interception in his first 100 pass attempts, and the first to throw five or more TDs and no interceptions in his first three career games. And much like Jerome Bettis, Darren Sproles is an over-30 running back with more tread on his tires than expected (though their respective styles of play couldn’t be more different).
There are obvious holes in this Keystone comparison. The Steelers had the benefit of continuity under coach Bill Cowher in 2004, while the 2016 Eagles are hoping new coach Doug Pederson is the antidote for the Chip Kelly debacle. Pittsburgh played in a competitive AFC North that saw only one team finish with a losing record, while the NFC East doesn’t figure to have more than one or two teams crack .500.
But Philly has outscored its first three opponents by an average of 30-9. Even though the first two blowouts were against Cleveland and Chicago (0-6 combined), the beat down laid upon Pittsburgh was so complete and decisive — the offense scored on six of their first seven drives and the defense held a potent Steeler offense to just 29 rushing yards and 251 yards of total offense — we have no choice but to sit up and pay attention to what the Eagles are doing. In fact, it’s not too far off what the ’04 Steelers did when they had only six games decided by seven points or less.
What Philadelphia will also need is a signature victory or two. While it’s possible Sunday will go down as one of those games, the 2004 Steelers were the first team in NFL history to get at least midway through the season and knock off undefeated teams in consecutive weeks (New England and, ironically, Philadelphia). Perhaps hammering home their point, Pittsburgh won those games by a combined score of 61-23.
The Eagles are flying high entering their bye, but we’ll need to see some wins like that against the league’s best before we consider them any more than the runaway favorite in a bad division. Their first real test comes in three weeks when they host their old friend Sam Bradford’s Minnesota Vikings (currently an impressive 3-0). And we’ll really find out how good Philly is in late November when they embark on a three-week stretch that includes trips to Seattle and Cincinnati, and a home game against the Packers.
The Eagles can’t blow out everyone. Sooner or later we have to see if Wentz is equally efficient in the clutch with the game on the line as he is when he’s protected a big lead, and if Pederson is a better game/clock manager than his mentor Andy Reid.
But this much we know: Philadelphia isn’t the last place underachiever I thought they’d be. For at least one week, they weren’t just in the same state as the Steelers — they were in the same neighborhood as one of their most memorable squads.
And in case you forgot, here’s the Week 3 Recap.
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