Chip Kelly delivers in NFL debut


I was wrong.

Six wins are what I predicted for the Philadelphia Eagles in Chip Kelly's first season as their head coach. That would've been progress. That was realistic. For a team coming off a two-year stretch that had produced 12 wins and players who hadn't exactly given it up for their head coach, six wins would indicate progress after 14 years of Andy Reid football.

The Eagles won their 10th game Sunday night, beating the Dallas Cowboys in their building 24-22 to capture the NFC East crown and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Up next: a date with sixth-seeded New Orleans on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field.

That the Eagles went from worst to first in their division and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season is a credit to Kelly. He made mistakes along the way. He made questionable in-game coaching decisions. He had growing pains as he navigated the NFL for the first time in his career.

But Kelly's offense worked. His philosophy on running a football team, college or professional, worked. His approach to managing players -- grown men earning sizable paychecks -- also worked.

The Eagles are the healthiest team in the playoffs. Incredibly, they did not put a single player on injured reserve in the regular season. Kelly preached the value of hydration, nutrition and sleep. He instituted an unorthodox weekly schedule for his "training sessions" that included practice on Tuesday, normally the players' day off, and spirited Saturday walk-through sessions to ensure that the players peaked for Sundays.

Despite the fact that he was a college coach, Kelly got his players to buy in. It is a credit to him, and to them, that they continued to buy in even when the team started 1-3 and then 3-5.

Now Philadelphia is in the playoffs, and, although the Eagles have their deficiencies, they have two things on their side that will make them a tough out.

First, they have momentum. It is rare that the best team in the regular season wins the Super Bowl. Often, it is the team that gets hottest and is most healthy late. After that 3-5 start with multiple quarterbacks getting extended playing time, Philadelphia won seven of its last eight to finish the season 10-6. The only stumble came on the road against Minnesota in Week 15. After that, the Eagles throttled Chicago, then played well enough in all three phases to stave off Dallas.

Six of the past eight Super Bowl winners played on wild-card weekend, too. So, in recent history, having to play four games to win the title has not been a problem.

Second, the Eagles have a potent offense. They set franchise records with 442 points scored, 6,676 net yards, 4,406 gross passing yards and 53 touchdowns. They scored 30-plus points a franchise-record eight times and, for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger, finished the season with the league leader in rushing yards ( LeSean McCoy) and passer rating ( Nick Foles). And they became the second team in NFL history with 4,000-plus passing yards and 2,400-plus rushing yards in a season.

Although running an up-tempo offense, Kelly has repeatedly said he doesn't care about time of possession. What he cares about is turnover differential and explosive plays. In their 10 wins, the Eagles had a plus-18 turnover ratio. They also set an NFL record with 98 plays of 20 or more yards.

Strike quickly. Protect the football. Generate turnovers on defense. The Eagles have done that.

Now they get a Saints team that, although dangerous, is decidedly different on the road versus at home. At the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans went 8-0 and averaged 34.0 points per game, 339.8 passing yards per game and 103.5 rushing yards per game. Drew Brees threw 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

On the road, the Saints went 3-5 and averaged 17.8 points per game, 275.0 passing yards per game and 80.6 rushing yards per game. In eight road games, Brees threw 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Although Brees has the most postseason experience of any quarterback in the NFC side of the draw, he has never won a road playoff game.

The Eagles went through a 10-game stretch dating back to last season in which they couldn't win at home but turned it around and have won their past four at Lincoln Financial Field.

Against Rob Ryan's New Orleans defense, Philadelphia will need to do a better job of protecting Foles than it did against Dallas. Foles will need to do a better job getting rid of the football quickly than he did against the Cowboys. But it has set up nicely for the Eagles to get their first playoff win since the 2008 season, when they reached the NFC Championship Game and lost to Arizona. After that first win, anything can happen.

"I told those guys the first time I met them that I thought this is a special group," Kelly said. "I can't tell you how much they've made this transition for me coming from college to the pros. It's those guys. Everything we asked them to do as a staff, from the first day we got there on April 1 until tonight, they bought in. It's an awesome feeling when you can work as hard as they've worked and see it pay off. The results are you're 10-6 and division [champions]. It's a real credit to those guys. They didn't flinch."

Neither did Kelly. He won. He delivered a division championship to Philadelphia I didn't see coming. Now, anything is possible. I was wrong.