CARSON, Calif. – It didn’t matter that the Eagles were nearly 3,000 miles from Philadelphia. From the start to the end of their 26-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, it sounded as if they were playing on South Broad Street.
And when the Eagles ran out the clock on the final six-plus minutes of the victory, the traveling and transplanted fans joined to chant “Let’s go, Eagles!”and offered cheers that seemed to come from most of the 25,374 in attendance. Eagles veterans who have become used to a vocal road contingent admitted they have never seen a road crowd as disproportionately in favor of the visiting team as the one at StubHub Center. Younger players are realizing that they could fly five hours and still experience a home-field advantage.
“I’m kind of starting to not be stunned by our fans,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Games like Sunday’s will only elevate the excitement among Eagles fans. The Eagles advanced to 3-1, taking first place in the NFC East and appearing to be a contender in the conference. A team that couldn’t win close games or on the road last season has now won two games away from home and back-to-back weeks by a combined five points.
“They’re learning from last year, learning from this year,” coach Doug Pederson said. “Even though we’re four games in, this team is really beginning to believe in themselves, believe in each other. The offense is bailing out the defense, the defense is bailing out the offense. Special teams sometimes bailed out everyone. …They’re coming together. That’s exciting. It’s fun to watch.”
Pederson is learning, too. Two weeks ago, he defended his seldom use of the running game. On Sunday, the Eagles rushed for 214 yards. LeGarrette Blount was the star, rushing 16 times for 136 yards. Wendell Smallwood added a rushing touchdown.
That overshadowed an efficient passing game – Carson Wentz finished 17 of 31 for 242 yards and one touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery. Tight end Zach Ertz caught five passes for 81 yards. Kicker Jake Elliott connected on all four of his field goals, continuing where he left off last week in a game with little margin for error.
The running backs were at their best in the fourth quarter. After the Chargers cut the score to 19-17 with 13 minutes, 42 seconds remaining, the Eagles’ lead could have been in danger. They needed a response. And that response was the 250-pound Blount.
Blount burst through the Chargers line on the second play of the drive, and he welcomed anyone who dared to cross his path. He broke four tackles and carried the ball 68 yards before the Chargers could drag him down. It was a demoralizing run for the Chargers, and it was the very reason the Eagles signed Blount in May to be their power rusher.
“They opened up a pretty big hole. It wasn’t that hard to see,” Blount said. “Obviously, you get into the secondary and you become an open-field runner. It happened pretty fast. In order to be a good back you got to make guys miss.”
They didn’t have as much success when they neared the goal line, and they needed a Chargers penalty to bail them out and offer a fresh set of downs. The Eagles didn’t spoil that chance, with Smallwood jumping into the end zone to give the Eagles a 26-17 lead.
The defense couldn’t hold that advantage. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers found Keenan Allen across the middle for a 50-yard catch on third down, and then hit Hunter Henry in the back of the end zone to make it a two-point game again with 6 minutes, 44 seconds remaining.
Wentz and the offense returned to the field and they never left. The Eagles passed twice and rushed eight times to set up two kneels to end the game in a long drive that demoralized the Chargers.
“We were hoping we were going to end in the victory formation or end in the end zone,” Wentz said.
By the time the two-minute warning hit, the players looked around the huddle and said one more first down would clinch the game. That’s when Blount rushed for his final 15 yards. The blockers loved it – center Jason Kelce called it “incredible” and gave the credit to the runners. The defense appreciated it – safety Malcolm Jenkins called it special.
“That’s what we’re going to pride ourselves on,” Ertz said. “That’s the standard.”
But that wasn’t the team’s identity last year. Ertz said the return of Lane Johnson, whom he called “the best right tackle in the league,” is a big help. And the addition of Blount also plays a role. It’s a brand of football that Philadelphia fans adore, and the Eagles didn’t need to be at Lincoln Financial Field for affirmation.
Smallwood heard booing before the game and thought Wentz took the field. He looked up and noticed it was the Chargers. That’s when he realized it was a “home game for us.” The players thought the Week 1 crowd in Washington was impressive for a road game. But Sunday was even more glaring. Jenkins said the defensive players waved their arms in the air for the fans to cheer louder – on the road.
“It definitely was noticed by our entire team,” Ertz said. “We definitely fed off them today.”
If the crowd sounded like it did Sunday in a 27,000-seat stadium in California, the Eagles can only imagine what will welcome them next week when the Arizona Cardinals visit Philadelphia.