Wentz injury leaves NFC race wide open

Carson Went walks off the field after injuring his ACLThe Philadelphia Eagles have been the talk of the NFC this season, wrapping up the NFC East with three weeks remaining after defeating fellow division-leaders the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. But Sunday’s victory came at a high price for the Eagles, who lost starting quarterback and MVP candidate Carson Wentz for the year due to a torn ACL. Philadelphia’s offense is untested without Wentz, and it will have three games to tune up before the playoffs begin in the hyper-competitive conference.

Four teams are within two games of catching the Eagles atop the NFC. The Minnesota Vikings sit one game back, with an eye on securing home field advantage through to the conference championship game. Philadelphia can secure a top-two position—and the accompanying first-round bye—with two wins in its final three games, but how it fares in those game will mostly depend on the play of backup quarterback Nick Foles.

Foles was once the Eagles’ starter, appearing in one playoff game for them—a loss—in 2013, but he lost the job and bounced around a couple other rosters before returning to Philadelphia this year. Foles has made one start since the end of 2015, and nothing he’s done since 2013 would suggest he’s ready to start for a playoff team. Wentz posted a video on social media assuring Eagles fans Foles will do “an amazing job” stepping into the starter’s role, and Foles looked comfortable in his brief appearance against the Rams, but anyone looking for more potentially positive signs will need to wait until next Sunday when Philadelphia visits the lowly New York Giants.

Beyond Foles, the Eagles will look to their strong running game, boosted by the midseason arrival of Jay Ajayi. LeGarrette Blount is one of the best running backs in the league at picking up yards after contact, with Ajayi not too far behind, and that style of rushing can wear down opposing defenses and create opportunities in the passing game. Philadelphia’s defense has been strong as well, aside from some underwhelming performances on the road over the last two weeks. The Eagles allow the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL, and defensive lineman Brandon Graham is having a career year with 8.5 sacks. Finding success in the playoffs with a backup quarterback is not without precedent, and Philadelphia has the tools to remain competitive regardless of who is throwing passes.

Aside from the Vikings and the Rams, the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, and Seattle Seahawks all look like teams with a realistic shot of representing the NFC at the Super Bowl. It will be up to the Eagles to hold them off without Wentz.