CHICAGO — The Eagles somehow found a way to win and outlasted the Bears, 16-15, Sunday in the wild-card round and will have the honors of facing the No. 1-seeded Saints in a rematch in New Orleans on Sunday. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles can beat the Saints. Beyond the adage that anything is possible, especially in the postseason, the Eagles are playing with enough confidence to pull off an upset.
We saw some of the mistakes that had plagued them in the first three quarters of the season before halftime against the Bears. There were turnovers. There were ill-timed penalties. There were dropped interceptions. There was dubious play-calling. The second half brought its own perils, as well. And if wasn’t for Treyvon Hester’s left paw and Cody Parkey’s missed field goal, the tone of this piece would be very different.
But the Eagles were the better team Sunday. Are they playing as well as they did last season? No. Are they playing well enough to beat the Saints? Probably not. But they’ve figured out a few areas that were of concern after the November blowout in the Big Easy. They know how to win, having won four straight, and six of their last seven. They know how to win in the postseason, obviously. And they certainly know how to win as underdogs.
“We have nothing to lose,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Nobody expects us to do anything. Everybody counted us out, so what do we have to lose but our dignity and pride.”
The Eagles are 8 1/2-point underdogs, which might seem generous considering the 48-7 pasting they took just two months ago.
“I think we’re a different football team now than we were then,” coach Doug Pederson said. The Eagles are healthier. They’re more sound in the defensive secondary. They’re better in the first quarter. They’re more balanced. And, perhaps most significantly, they have a different quarterback.
2. Treyvon Hester’s presence on the roster is emblematic of the Eagles’ late-season success. He’s played almost anonymously at defensive tackle for the last three months. He had just 20 tackles and one sack in 12 regular-season games. He didn’t even show up in Sunday’s stat sheet, other than the fact that he played.
But Hester made the play of the game when he broke through and tipped the football after it left Parkey’s right foot. Frame-by-frame replays showed his left hand getting bent back, and the football altering its path, both ever so slightly, during the kick. Parkey apparently didn’t even know that Hester had gotten a piece of the ball immediately after the game.
“I thought I hit a great ball,” Parkey said. But it hooked and hit the left upright before it bounced on the crossbar and into the end zone.
Every team has unheralded midseason additions, but the Eagles have several who are making important contributions. There’s cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc, who has been a steadying presence in the slot. There’s safety Tre Sullivan, who was released before the season and initially overlooked even as the Eagles dealt with multiple injuries in the secondary. There were four active special-teams players Sunday — cornerback Josh Hawkins, running back Boston Scott, linebacker B.J. Bello, and defensive end Daeshon Hall — who weren’t even on the roster a month ago.
I cover the team for a living and couldn’t even recall when Bello was promoted off the practice squad. It’s a credit to Howie Roseman and his staff for finding credible replacements so late in the season, and to Pederson for implementing them into the system. And Hester was the hero at Soldier Field. Who would have thought it?
3. Doug Pederson can adapt. I don’t want to go overboard with my praise of Pederson because I thought he called a decent, if not good or great, game. He can’t be faulted much for Foles’ two first-half interceptions. The Eagles were moving the ball well enough.
But I thought that Pederson was too insistent on running the ball on early downs, despite the fact that neither Darren Sproles nor Wendell Smallwood (a combined 21 carries for 41 yards) could pick up many yards. He agreed after the game. “I’ll look at that tomorrow and get better,” Pederson said. He called 10 runs to four passes on first down.
But in the second half, he got more aggressive and called 10 passes to five runs. The Bears lived up to their billing as the No. 1 run defense. If the Eagles were to win, Pederson needed to place more trust in Foles on early downs, even if his interceptions came on first and second down.
Overall, the run-pass ratio was 22-41, minus the Foles kneel at the end. Pederson had caught the Bears with a Sproles 10-yard tote on third-and-9 in the first quarter, but his decision to hand off again to Sproles on third-and-3 in the fourth quarter — he was stopped short — was a little too cute for me. But Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh have done a better job of scripting their starts — the Eagles opened a game with points for the fourth time in the last six games — and keeping defenses on their toes. They likely need to implement a near-flawless game plan next week if they’re to topple the Saints.
4. Nick Foles is clutch, but we already knew that. It looked for stretches that Foles’ Cinderella run would be over. The first interception was just as much on Smallwood, I thought, as Foles. The quarterback put it on Smallwood’s wrong shoulder, but the running back allowed linebacker Roquan Smith to steal it from him. But the second pick was ugly. The Eagles were at the Bears' 21 and Foles dropped on second down. There was pressure, and just before he was about to get sandwiched, he uncorked a dying quail to a triple-covered Nelson Agholor.
There were some other poor throws — the worst a wild outside pitch that missed an open Dallas Goedert on third down in the fourth quarter. But Foles, when the Eagles got the ball back on the ensuing drive, was resilient. “Nick is Nick,” Pederson said. “He’s going to stay calm. He’s going to stay collected.”
On the game-winning drive, Foles completed 6 of 9 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. He threw a rope to Alshon Jeffery on third-and-9 and calmly hit Golden Tate for the 2-yard game-clincher. There once was a time when Foles would let early struggles get to him. But in each of his four starts since taking over for Carson Wentz, he has rebounded from turnovers.
“You can be a little gun-shy as a younger player,” Foles said. “I talked about staying in the moment, good or bad.” He took some hits, but Foles kept getting back up despite his injured ribs. “I feel good,” he said. It’s Foles the rest of the way, even if Wentz is healthy. As I wrote last week, the only way Wentz would be activated is if Foles can’t play.
5. The Golden Tate trade (finally) paid off. With the game on the line, Tate’s number was called. Pederson called for a “Q-8” — a sprint-out pass with the slot as the first read — and the receiver delivered. As important as that catch was, Tate’s 28-yard haul was more impressive because he knew he was likely to get crushed — he did — and still held on.
I thought the Eagles would continue to play more “12” personnel (two tight ends), as we’ve seen over the last month. The Bears had struggled against tight ends and with Zach Ertz (five catches for 52) and Goedert, the Eagles could exploit them through the air. But Pederson leaned on his “11” personnel (three receivers) package, and that meant more Tate. He finished with five catches for 46 yards and the touchdown.
There has been a combination of reasons why it’s been difficult to implement Tate into the offense. “It’s been challenging,” he said. I still think the trade — the Eagles sent a third-round pick to the Lions — was the wrong one. It’s not as if Tate is tearing it up, and the compensatory pick the Eagles might get in 2020 could be only a fifth-rounder. But the extended run has given the receiver a chance to prove his worth in this scheme.
» READ MORE: Golden Tate finally pays big dividends for Eagles
6. Lane Johnson and Jason Peters are pillars. Khalil Mack is considered one of the premier edge rushers in the NFL. He’s wrecked games and obliterated quarterbacks. I devoted an entire film breakdown to the Bears outside linebacker last week. But Johnson and Peters kept him in check.
Mack finished with six tackles, two for loss and one quarterback hit, but they were relatively quiet numbers. He split his time lining up on either side, as he has done all season, and seemed to give Peters a little more trouble than Johnson. But keeping him from Foles was likely directive No. 1, and the Eagles accomplished the goal. The Bears recorded only one sack.
In the Eagles’ last four games, Foles has been sacked only five times, and Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt and Mack — three of the best rushers in the NFL — were shut out. Pederson put Isaac Seumalo back in at left guard even though Stefen Wisniewski had held down the fort for three games. It was a bold move, but he seemingly made the right decision. In a season when it seemed as if Pederson pushed every wrong button for a long span, he’s come up aces over the last month.
» READ MORE: Jason Peters finally picks up a postseason win
7. Malcolm Jenkins is up for any assignment. When defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was handing out assignments last week and the name Tarik Cohen came up, it would have been understandable if the sound of crickets was the only audible response from the Eagles’ defensive backs.
But it’s likely Jenkins raised his hand. For one, he’s the best suited to cover the multi-faceted running back. But he’s also that confident in his abilities. It was Jenkins who shut down the dangerous James White in last year’s Super Bowl. The elusive Cohen was a different challenge. He averaged 10 touches for 7.3 yards per on offense in the regular season. But on Sunday, he had just four touches for 27 yards.
“They had a good game plan against me,” Cohen said.
Safety Corey Graham, who had Cohen at times, as well, gets an honorable mention, as do other defenders when Schwartz went zone. The coordinator went with speed vs. the Bears’ offense and used dime and nickel personnel for most of the game. With tight end Trey Burton out, Chicago coach Matt Nagy leaned on this three-wideout package. Nigel Bradham was the lone linebacker to play every snap and he had arguably his best game of the season. He finished with seven tackles, two for loss and two batted passes. Cornerback Rasul Douglas (a team-high eight tackles and a pass breakup) and defensive end Michael Bennett (a sack, two tackles for loss, and a hit), aside from his unnecessary-roughness personal foul, also had strong outings.
8. Avonte Maddox had a rough game, but he can’t wallow in the moment. The Saints were watching and Sean Payton is likely devising plays now to take advantage of the rookie cornerback. Maddox has had an impressive first season. He’s versatile and he’s a competitor. But Sunday was a tough go.
The Bears set him up and took advantage of his aggressiveness with double moves. Not all of Allen Robinson’s 10 catches for 143 yards came at Maddox’s expense, but most of them did. It goes without saying that Mitch Trubisky and Robinson aren’t on par with Saints quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Michael Thomas. Maddox has been buoyant in his short career. I wouldn’t count him out.
» READ MORE: Eagles’ win shows defending champs’ toughness
9. Alshon Jeffery is big time. The Eagles receiver caught three of four targets for 55 yards in the first half. I wanted more and tweeted out the following: “I’d keep throwing it to that No. 17 guy.” But Jeffery saw only one target in the third quarter.
However, with the game on the line, he came up with two catches on the Eagles’ game-winning drive: the first a 15-yard grab with yards after catch, and the second an 11-yard snag on a crucial third-and-9. Jeffery was clearly pumped up about playing against his former team. Groh, he said, had to calm him down before the game. But Jeffery did what he’s done over the last two seasons for the Eagles: Come up big in big spots. In the Eagles’ last four games, he’s caught 22 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown.