For the surprise NFC East champs, all hope rests on their reborn—and remade—quarterback
After the Eagles' wild fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants in Week 15—four unanswered touchdowns in the final 7:28—offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg explained the blossoming of Michael Vick's talents. He started with Vick's instincts, moved on to his decision making and proceeded to his timing and accuracy. Only then did he cite Vick's famed big arm and athleticism. "Michael's got it all at this point," Mornhinweg said. "When he came here, he was working before every practice and after practice virtually every day. He put the hard work in. And then the rest of it's in the mind. We've got some guys with guts on the team. Michael's certainly got guts."
It is the sum of Vick's qualities that made him the most compelling player of the 2010 season and made the Eagles the most dynamic team in the league. The first distinction will only intensify as Vick enters the playoff stage as a starter for the first time since the 2004 season, an interlude that, of course, included a 19-month prison spell for his role in a dogfighting ring.
How Vick's gifts transfer to the postseason with its tightened defenses and cruel weather, will be the difference between an extended run and a short stay for Philly. (It is worth remembering that Vick's signature playoff win came against supremely long odds: in January 2003, in the snow at frigid Lambeau Field, where the Packers had never lost a playoff game.) Of greater concern than the weather will be Vick's physical condition. He injured his quadriceps on the first play of a Week 16 loss to the Vikings and took several big shots afterward. The sight of Vick racing down the sideline and being knocked crossways by some defender has become a weekly occurrence.
At full strength, though, Vick simply does things no other quarterback can. That is the conundrum for a defense facing him. If linebackers and safeties linger at the line of scrimmage to spy on him, the alleys awaiting fleet receiver DeSean Jackson only become wider. Vick and Jackson give Philly the kind of big-play component no other team in the postseason has. How Mornhinweg and Andy Reid deploy Vick and how the Packers' defense counters will be the first week's most intriguing theater.
What will help make the Eagles' path easier is if a Philly defense that has battled through injuries on every level can hold up for a few more games. While the Eagles lost safety Nate Allen (ruptured patellar tendon) and defensive end Brandon Graham (torn ACL) for the season, they hope to get middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (dislocated elbow) back in time for the playoffs.
Bradley, defensive end Trent Cole and safety Quintin Mikell are the leaders, thinkers and energizers of the Eagles' defense. But it will be Vick, more than anyone else, whose success or failure will tell the Eagles' tale.
HOW TO BEAT THE EAGLES
It takes calculated risks to slow down Michael Vick. As the Vikings showed in their 24--14 victory at Philadelphia in Week 16, well-designed blitzes not only occasionally disrupt Vick's rhythm but also physically wear him down. Bringing pressure off the edges with cornerbacks—the few defensive players with the speed to harass Vick—is a gamble a defense will find worth taking every so often.
Philly's aggressive secondary causes a raft of turnovers, but it also gives up passing touchdowns by the bushel. Mistakes and injuries have forced coordinator Sean McDermott's hand—he has rotated players in his defensive backfield all season. Strong fakes from opposing quarterbacks and receivers could give the Eagles trouble.
How NFC third seeds have fared since 1990
0 Won Super Bowl
1 Lost Super Bowl
2 Lost conference championship game
7 Lost in divisional round
10 Lost in wild-card round
BIRD BRAIN Vick can still run and gun, but now he makes wiser decisions at quarterback.