Julian Edelman provided a big spark for New England on MNF, can he do it again? (Steve Balestrieri photo)

On Sunday, the New England Patriots (7-3) travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles (4-6) in a matchup of two teams that have perennially succeeded in the past decade.

The Patriots and Eagles don’t play each other that much, the last time was back in 2007 when Philly visited Foxborough for a SNF contest. The Patriots haven’t been to Philadelphia since September 2003 and have only played them 11 times overall including the 2004 Super Bowl in Jacksonville.

The Eagles come in fighting for their playoff lives at this point, with every week a virtual must-win for them. While the Patriots got over their recent two game losing streak with two big wins over the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 71-19.

Patriots Running Game:
The Eagles have scaled back their much ballyhooed “Wide 9” scheme a bit in recent weeks and their running game defense is much better because of it. Early in the season, utilizing the “Wide 9”, which allows better penetration from the DEs in attacking the QB, it leaves the linebackers vulnerable to the run and the Eagles were gashed earlier this season.

Jim Washburn had brought that system with him from Tennessee where he last coached. But Washburn had veteran, solid linebackers with the Titans, in Philly where he has younger, more inexperienced linebackers it has been much more difficult to run. Since dialing it back some, the Eagles run defense is now operating at a much higher rate. They held the Giants to just 29 yards rushing last week.

The Patriots got their run game going in the second half against the Chiefs and ended up with a solid output. To run effectively this week, look for the Patriots to spread the Eagles out more, using their natural aggressiveness in rushing the passer against them using traps and draws.

Last week the Patriots finally got Shane Vereen into the mix and he looked good late in the game. He, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead will have to hit the holes quickly as the Philly defense is good at running to the ball. But they should have some areas to run this week.

Patriots Passing Game:
The Patriots passing game hasn’t been executing at a consistently high level for quite a few weeks. One of the reasons for that is the WRs are being jammed at the line of scrimmage and haven’t been able to either get separation or stretch the field and make teams pay for it. Tom Brady has had slow starts because of elbow issues and the team’s offense hasn’t started quickly in a while.

The Eagles have three excellent corners in Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie. Asomugha was hurt in practice on Thursday so his availability may be in question. But the Patriots will have to do better than the six targets to WRs on MNF. That just isn’t going to get it done.

Protection is the key here, in obvious passing situations in third and long, the Eagles will use their “Wide 9” technique and it put Trent Cole and Jasin Babin in better position to rush the QB. And they’ve been very good at doing so. But what the Eagles do as well is run the Double 3 technique inside. Their defensive tackles line up on the outside of a guard’s shoulder, forcing him to work more in space. With Cullin Jenkins at DT, he is a force to be reckoned with and that’s why the Eagles pass rush is so effective with Babin, Cole and Jenkins all bringing pressure.

The Patriots OL will have to be conscious of twists and stunts, because having the defensive tackles close to their ends creates a shorter separation for them to twist through the middle, something Pittsburgh did to great effect. Doing this puts the pass protection into more one on one matchups rather than a combined effort.  The center because of this is usually uncovered but has a long way to slide over to help. If he does, the MLB can come on a delayed blitz basically uncovered.  This is commonly done by the Bears as well. Of the Eagles 29 sacks this season, eleven have used the Double 3 technique alignment.

The one area of mismatch for the Patriots remains at tight end, no can cover Rob Gronkowski right now and the Eagles don’t have anyone that can match up with him. It will be interesting to see how Philly decides to cover him. As long as he can get free, the Patriots will move the ball in the air.

Eagles Running Game:
Philly possesses arguably the best all-around back in the game in LeSean McCoy, who is leading the league in rushing with 10 touchdowns to boot. McCoy has 1019 yards rushing and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.He is also dangerous coming out of the backfield. The Eagles offensive line struggled early in the season due to injuries and inconsistency but is playing much better now.

The Patriots run stopping defense has played well this season, with the defensive line play much, much better than last season. Vince Wilfork has been solid, but has been less effective the past few weeks, possibly due to his overwork early in the season. But Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter have stepped up their play to limit opponents running.

The problem for New England is the second line of defense, specifically at MLB. Brandon Spikes is still out with an MCL injury, Dane Fletcher has been out with a thumb injury and Gary Guyton, never the best run stopper anyway has been ineffective and barely saw the field last week. The team used Jeff Tarpinian against the Jets but he went on IR this week with a head injury (reported as a “illness” all week). So the Pats are left with Guyton and STs player Tracy White. If McCoy can get to the second level consistently, this could be a long afternoon for the Patriots defense.

Eagles Passing Game:
This is the kind of matchup that has to scare the Patriots coaches, like Pittsburgh, Philly can put lots of speed to the outside WR position with Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. The Patriots lack of speed to the outside here is a detriment, if they try to roll their coverages deep to take away the deep ball, it leaves the underneath routes open and the Philly WRs can take advantage of that. As well as use the underrated and excellent tight end Brent Celek to attack the center of the defense between the LBs and safeties.

The Patriots patchwork secondary is going to need help here, lately they’ve been getting help from the pass rush mainly from Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. That’s where Philly struggled for much of the season in protection of Mike Vick. Carter and Anderson will need to step up again in this matchup to limit the time the secondary has to cover.

It’s unknown whether Vick will play or it will be Vince Young, Vick brings a different level of dangerousness to the game but pressure will remain the key. Another aspect of the Eagles attack this week could be McCoy who is dangerous in the flat, an area where the Pats struggled earlier this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
The Patriots dormant return game got a spark last week with Julian Edelman returning a punt 72 yards for a touchdown against the Chiefs. The Eagles coverage teams are among the top in the NFL. While the Eagles surprisingly have had little production from Jackson this year on punt returns.

Both teams have solid kickers with New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, and Philly’s rookie K Alex Henery having solid seasons. Neither team is returning kickoffs particularly well but the Patriots do have a distinct advantage in the punting game with Zoltan Mesko having a very solid season while Chris Henry has only a 36.7 yard net average.

“X”-Factors:
The Patriots come into this week with a two game lead in the AFC East and a chance to start to close the door on either the Jets or Bills coming back to contest the division title. With injuries piling up, especially on defense, the team has to feel good about where they are sitting right now. Bill Belichick will ensure that they are well aware of how important each game is going down the stretch to get the bye week, although they would never talk about things so far in advance openly.

The Eagles entered the season with a Super Bowl in mind and bringing in numerous free agents with that goal in mind. But the Philly “Dream Team” got off to a slow start and now has an uphill climb to even make the playoffs. Currently four teams sit above them for a Wild Card spot, so they have to win their division but with Dallas 2.5 games and the Giants 2 games above them in the standings, the Eagles playoffs start now. They should be a desperate, focused team on Sunday; there is zero margin for error at this point. A loss on Sunday would virtually end their season.

Conclusions:
This will be a tough matchup for the Patriots especially on defense, the Eagles speed to the outside will test the patchwork secondary and the Patriots will need a huge effort from them as well as the defensive line to pressure Young and keep the dangerous McCoy under wraps.

The Patriots offense, inconsistent the past month, needs to get started early and put pressure on the Eagles. With Asomugha getting injured and possibly out, Tom Brady needs to get the Patriots WRs involved in the game and early. This will open things up a bit in the middle and allow the TEs Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez more room to move.

The running game needs to run and take advantage of Philadelphia’s aggressiveness and make them pay when they catch them coming hard. It will be interesting to see how they created space for the WRs, they may bunch the WRs to get them more free release, but protection is the key here. The Eagles have three very good, productive pass rushers in Babin, Cole and Jenkins. Brady needs to stay upright for the Pats to win.

I think both offenses are going to move the ball a lot, both have plenty of options available to them. If Vick plays in this game, I would be inclined to pick Philly given their speed advantage, but Vince Young has a bad habit of turning the ball over. His three interceptions were largely overlooked last week because the Eagles drove the ball at crunch time and were able to come away with a victory.

If they give Brady and the Patriots a short field, it would be playing with fire. This one will be close throughout, but in the end, the Patriots Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker will be the difference makers in this game. With Asomugah and Rogers-Cromartie both missing in the secondary Welker will negate the pass rush by cutting routes off and Gronk will get the red-zone scores. Patriots win a close one 27-24