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The 2017 Eagles are fun like the 2016 Cowboys — but better

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Philadelphia continues to roll, but can it last?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the Eagles traded up to select North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. In the spring and summer of 2017, they surrounded him with weapons designed to accelerate his growth.

In the fall of 2017, they’ve developed into the league’s most successful — and fun — team.

Philadelphia won its ninth straight game Sunday, routing a hapless Bears team in a 31-3 home victory. The 10-1 Eagles showcased all their strengths against Chicago, be it the athletic playmaking of Wentz to get a first down:

Or the perpetually underrated agility of 250-pound tailback LeGarrette Blount, leaping over a defender to gain an extra couple of yards:

Or the unlikely revival of former first-round wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who somersaulted into the end zone for his first score of the day:

Even when things went wrong for Philly, they went right. Jay Ajayi fumbled deep in Chicago territory in the fourth quarter of the blowout only to have Agholor land on it in the end zone, pushing the Eagles lead to 31-3 and further demoralizing a team on its way to rock bottom.

The Eagles are a deeper and more explosive version of 2016’s Dallas Cowboys

The parallels between the year-separated division rivals are clear. There’s a young, emerging quarterback behind center directing traffic and earning MVP consideration. There’s a lengthy winning streak propelling them to the top of the NFC East. A high-powered offense and an above-average defense have been the engine between each franchise’s sudden rise.

But the Eagles are doing what last year’s Cowboys did, but better — at least through 11 games.

2016 Cowboys vs. 2017 Eagles

Team Offensive PPG Rank Defensive PPG Rank Pass YPG Rank Rush YPG Rank
Team Offensive PPG Rank Defensive PPG Rank Pass YPG Rank Rush YPG Rank
2016 Dallas 26.3 5 19.1 5 226.9 23 149.8 2
2017 Philadelphia 31.9 1 17.4 4 234 15 147.5 2

It starts with a space-clearing offensive line that’s allowed the running game to dominate. Both Dak Prescott and Wentz had a track record of eating sacks in their team’s breakout years — Wentz, in particular, has been dropped on 7 percent of his dropbacks this season.

However, a big part of those subpar sack numbers has been these quarterbacks’ willingness to take a sack rather than force balls into bad openings. That decision-making is reflected in impressively low interception rates — 1.4 percent for Wentz this fall and a ridiculous 0.9 percent for Prescott last season.

Those blockers were even more effective in the running game. Last year’s Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards per carry, the third-best mark in the league. After Sunday, the Eagles are averaging 4.6 yards per touch, third in the NFL.

While Philly doesn’t have a singular back as dynamic as Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s platoon features a cache of runners who can fill any role. Five different running backs have run for touchdowns this fall, ranging from the bruising Blount to trade acquisition Jay Ajayi to undrafted free agent pickup Corey Clement.

The team’s explosive wideout corps has also adopted a committee approach to push the Eagles offense into the NFL stratosphere. Seven different players have at least 100 receiving yards in 2017. Philadelphia traded last year’s leading receiver, Jordan Matthews, to Buffalo in hopes free agent additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith would more than make up for his absence by teaming with the best-ever version of Algohor. Together, the three have combined for 98 receptions, 1,356 yards, and 15 touchdowns through 11 games.

That group doesn’t even include Wentz’s favorite target: tight end Zach Ertz. He leads the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (639).

And when everyone gets involved, everything is better — even the team’s celebrations, which have become a weekly tradition:

So what will be Philadelphia’s fatal flaw?

Dallas’ 2016 season ended against a Packers team that rode a dynamic offense and the otherworldly play of Aaron Rodgers to the NFC title game. Philadelphia’s 2017 could end in a similar fashion.

The Eagles ranked just 20th in passing defense before facing the quarterback-challenged Bears Sunday — and that was going up against a passer-starved lineup that has included C.J. Beathard, Brock Osweiler, and a diminished Carson Palmer. Veteran quarterbacks Eli Manning and Philip Rivers gashed the team for 708 combined passing yards this fall, albeit in a pair of Philly victories. That’s not especially reassuring with Drew Brees and the Saints potentially looming in the postseason.

A powerful pass rush — Philadelphia averages nearly three sacks per game — helps mitigate the holes in the secondary. When the front seven can’t get that pressure, those flaws are magnified. The Eagles couldn’t get to Manning in Week 3, and he threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a game where the Eagles beat the now 2-9 Giants by only three points.

That’s not a glaring weakness, though, and the team is strong enough elsewhere to emerge as the NFC’s top team. No one allows fewer rushing yards in the league than Philadelphia. The Bears went into Sunday with the fifth-ranked rushing offense. They gained just 6 yards on the ground against this defense.

While that’s a function of the team’s propensity to jump out to early leads, the 3.5 yards per carry allowed is proof that the run defense is legit.

So in general, the Eagles defense is pretty much in sync, like their planned “Electric Slide” celebration:

The next two weeks will determine whether Philadelphia will claim home-field advantage

The Eagles have passed nearly all the tests the league has thrown their way, with the only stumble coming against the buzzsaw that was the September Kansas City Chiefs. Since then, they’ve dispatched postseason contenders like the Panthers, Chargers, and Cowboys.

A few tests over the final five weeks of the 2017 season remain, none more important than the next two weeks. Philadelphia has road games against the Seahawks and Rams looming, two teams with good but not great passing offenses. If Russell Wilson and Jared Goff can touch up the Eagles secondary, it’ll plant a seed of doubt that could blossom in the postseason. If they can’t, then the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl will run through Philadelphia.

And that’s scary for the rest of the conference.

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