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NFL Preview - Denver (8-6) at Philadelphia (10-4)



By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The playoff picture in both the AFC and NFC will be affected greatly by the outcome of Sunday's interconference matchup between the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. The significance of this Week 16 clash, however, figures to be overshadowed due to the pending return of a former franchise icon to Lincoln Financial Field.

The player who has participated in more games as an Eagle than any other will be taking the field in an enemy uniform this weekend. Safety Brian Dawkins ended an incredibly successful 13-year reign as the heart and soul of the Philadelphia defense when he signed with the Broncos this past February, a move that drew more than its share of backlash from fans and local media towards the Eagles' organization.

One of the most beloved players in team history, Dawkins was among the most important contributors to Philadelphia's run of seven postseason berths, five NFC Championship Game appearances and one Super Bowl trip over the previous nine seasons. The 36-year-old went to seven Pro Bowls during his 183-game tenure with the Eagles and is tied for first in club annals with 34 interceptions.

Dawkins has made a similar impact in his debut season with the Broncos, as the fiery veteran's addition has helped turn around a defense that was one of the league's most submissive a year ago. Denver enters this weekend's bout ranked second in the NFL against the pass and third in total defense and has held the opposition to 13 points or less six times over the course of this year.

While Dawkins and running back Correll Buckhalter, who spent eight seasons with the Eagles before also joining Denver in the offseason, will be the primary storyline for Sunday's tilt, they and their new teammates will be focused on a more important task at hand. Losses in six of the last eight games have placed the Broncos' once-certain chances of reaching the playoffs in clear jeopardy, and the team will have to bounce back quickly from last weekend's shocking 20-19 home loss to rival Oakland.

The Raiders went ahead on a 10-yard touchdown pass from maligned quarterback JaMarcus Russell to Chaz Schilens with just 35 seconds remaining. Denver had a golden opportunity to go up by more than one possession earlier in the fourth quarter, but settled for a short field goal and a 19-13 advantage after failing to convert a 1st-and-goal from the Oakland two-yard line.

The defeat placed the 8-6 Broncos in a tie with Baltimore for the AFC's two Wild Card spots, with a pack of six teams -- Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh and Tennessee -- all lurking one game off the pace with two to go.

Denver can sew up one of those berths with a win over the Eagles coupled with losses by the Jaguars, Dolphins, Jets and Steelers this weekend.

Philadelphia secured an invitation to the NFC's postseason tournament with last Sunday's 27-13 victory over San Francisco, the fifth consecutive win for Andy Reid's squad. The Eagles are now an impressive 14-3 in December games since 2006, and 31-13 all-time for the month under Reid's direction.

The Eagles can wrap up their sixth NFC East title in Reid's 11-year run by defeating the Broncos and if second-place Dallas loses to Washington on Sunday. The Cowboys, one game back in the standings, will host Philadelphia in the regular-season finale on January 3.

Philadelphia has not won six a row since November 15-December 19 of its NFC Championship campaign of 2004.

SERIES HISTORY

Philadelphia has a 6-4 edge in its all-time series with the Broncos, but has been outscored by a composite of 90-37 in its last two series matchups, both in Denver, in 2005 (49-21) and 1998 (41-16). The Eagles won the previous meeting, a 31-13 affair at Veterans Stadium in 1995. Denver is 0-2 in Philly since winning at the Vet in 1986.

Reid is 0-1 in his career against the Broncos, while Denver's Josh McDaniels will be meeting both Reid and Philadelphia for the first time as a head man.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

Denver is at its best when it can establish an effective running game to complement a rather predictable passing attack, and the stats bear that out. The Broncos have averaged 147.4 rushing yards in their eight wins, but just 83.8 in the six losses. The team generated little on the ground against the spirited Raiders last week, with rookie Knowshon Moreno (879 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 6 total TD) managing only 42 yards on 19 attempts. That lack of production, combined with Denver's heavy reliance on dynamic wide receiver Brandon Marshall (93 receptions, 1081 passing yards, 10 TD), bogged the Broncos down for much of the game. Quarterback Kyle Orton (3182 passing yards, 17 TD, 8 INT) threw for 278 yards with no interceptions, but completed just 19-of-34 passes and was sacked three times for a third straight week. The mega-talented Marshall hauled in seven Orton strikes for 73 yards and a touchdown, one week after setting an NFL single-game record with 21 catches in a loss at Indianapolis, but fellow wideouts Jabar Gaffney (33 receptions) and Eddie Royal (37 receptions) and tight end Tony Scheffler (30 receptions, 2 TD) all have been inconsistent as secondary receiving options. The offense would get a boost if Buckhalter (582 rushing yards, 1 TD, 27 receptions) can make it back from a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the Oakland game, but it's iffy that he'll be ready for Sunday.

Philadelphia ranks 10th in the league in rush defense (101.9 ypg) and had not allowed an individual to run for over 100 yards in 20 straight games until the 49ers' Frank Gore put up 107 on 16 carries last week. If the Eagles are able to keep the Broncos' backs in check, they'll be better equipped to unleash a potent pass rush headlined by unheralded end Trent Cole (51 tackles, 11.5 sacks), who's averaged 11 sacks over the past three years and took down San Francisco's Alex Smith twice in Week 15. Philly has amassed 39 sacks (4th overall) as a team so far this year, further aiding a quality secondary that possesses two ball-hawking cornerbacks in Asante Samuel (35 tackles, 8 INT, 14 PD) and Sheldon Brown (48 tackles, 5 INT, 16 PD). Samuel had one of three interceptions of Smith in last Sunday's triumph and is tied for the NFC lead in that category, while the Eagles' total of 36 takeaways trails only New Orleans for tops in the NFL this season. They've forced a total of 11 turnovers over their past three wins, including four each in recent verdicts over the Giants and 49ers.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

Sunday's game could feature the return of another prominent Eagle, as running back Brian Westbrook (225 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 2 TD) appears to finally be all the way back from a nasty concussion he sustained in late October, an injury that has sidelined the two-time Pro Bowler for seven of the club's last eight tests. Reid can afford to ease Westbrook back into action, since rookie LeSean McCoy (606 rushing yards, 4 TD, 37 receptions) has quickly emerged as a viable two-way threat and versatile fullback Leonard Weaver (301 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 4 total TD) has shown he can be more than a lead blocker. Even with the backfield at full strength, Philadelphia's quick-strike offense will still revolve around the talents of battle-tested quarterback Donovan McNabb (3008 passing yards, 19 TD, 9 INT) and game-breaking receiver DeSean Jackson (56 receptions, 1087 yards, 8 TD), who's averaging a terrific 19.4 yards per catch. The speedy second-year pro has scored a touchdown in four straight games and followed up a career-high 178-yard, six-catch effort in a Week 14 win over the Giants by burning San Francisco for 140 yards on six grabs this past Sunday. Tight end Brent Celek (65 receptions, 7 TD) and wide receiver Jason Avant (38 receptions, 2 TD) are both trusted targets for McNabb who may be a bigger part of the game plan if rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin (46 receptions, 4 TD) is held out for a second straight week with a foot injury.

A Denver defense that has yielded the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL (177.5 ypg) won't make things easy for McNabb and his strong corps of receivers. The Broncos are both experienced and accomplished on the back end, as Dawkins (100 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) and standout cornerback Champ Bailey (69 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) have been to 15 Pro Bowls between them and both corner Andre Goodman (37 tackles, 4 INT, 14 PD) and strong safety Renaldo Hill (53 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) are heady and reliable veterans. Hill sat out the Oakland game with a sprained ankle, but the team is hopeful he'll be available for this critical showdown. The Eagles will also have to account for disruptive outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (46 tackles, 3 forced fumbles), who's racked up a league-best 15 sacks on the year. Denver held the punchless Raiders to 102 passing yards last week but was abused on the ground, with Oakland's tandem of Michael Bush and Darren McFadden piling up a combined 207 yards on 30 carries. Inside linebackers D.J. Williams (105 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Andra Davis (78 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will be counted on to perform better in containment against a Philadelphia stable of backs that can be dangerous in the open field.

FANTASY FOCUS

Westbrook's expected return creates a bit of uncertainty regarding the Eagles' backfield situation, but it would be shocking if he's used in anything more than a supporting capacity this week. And with Buckhalter still banged up on the Broncos' side, the rookies (McCoy and Moreno) are the ones to own pertaining to this game. At quarterback, McNabb still makes for a solid choice despite a difficult matchup, but Orton's not a recommended play against Philly's opportunistic defense. This contest features a pair of premier fantasy receivers in Marshall and Jackson, as well as two top-tier kickers in the Eagles' David Akers and Denver's Matt Prater, who rank first and third in field goals made, respectively, this season. Celek is also start-worthy at the tight end spot, but avoid any other pass-catcher that will be competing here, with Maclin termed a game-time decision who will be limited if he does go. Give a Philadelphia defense that's been forcing turnovers at will lately a thumbs up.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

While Dawkins' appearance will most certainly elicit a response from the crowd, the Eagles are a seasoned and professional bunch who will be focused at the task at hand come Sunday. And let's not forget about Philadelphia's outstanding track record in late-season games, a polar opposite from that of a Denver team that squandered a playoff opportunity by caving down the stretch last season and has shown troubling signs of repeating that feat this year. With the defense once again setting the tone, look for the Eagles to move one step closer towards another NFC East crown under the Reid/McNabb regime.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Broncos 16

12/23 16:45:52 ET

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