Ford: Wentz makes Eagles a contender right now

So, there was that moment in the third period when the quarterback really got flustered and made a bonehead rookie mistake. It had been coming all afternoon as the game became one-sided and frustration set in.

He was being wrapped up in the backfield by the defensive tackle and decided that slipping the ball lefthanded to a nearby offensive lineman was a way out of the mess. The lineman dropped the ball, of course, and it fell to the ground where it was recovered by the defense. Three plays later, another touchdown and the game was all but over.

Yeah, that Ben Roethlisberger may never develop into anything.

Here we are, three weeks into the NFL season, and the world has been turned upside down for the Eagles in that short space of time. Everything that seemed obvious at the end of training camp has disappeared, replaced by a new set of possibilities.

It was just that long ago that the team traded its starting quarterback and entrusted the season to rookie Carson Wentz. That move was expected to produce a fascinating story line, but it sure wasn't supposed to produce this.

In just his third professional start, this time against a team that had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, Wentz played like a 13-year veteran while Roethlisberger, harassed and chased all game, was the one reduced to making the rookie errors.

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How far can the Eagles go this season?

Eagles fans - and the Eagles themselves, for that matter - would have been satisfied with any kind of win in this situation against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But a 34-3 thumping? A here-we-are declaration of intent for the season? That might have seemed too much to hope for, but it is exactly what took place.

The game was won in every aspect. The defense was very good, the offensive line exceptional in protecting the quarterback. But let's not kid ourselves. The praise should be deservedly spread around, but this - this thing that is happening - is a Carson Wentz story.

"What he's doing is amazing," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. "He'll downplay it, but it's something special."

And if Wentz keeps it up?

"We'll win a lot of games," Jenkins said.

Wentz threw for more than 300 yards for the first time in his career, including two touchdown passes. He spread the ball around, with mostly sharp underneath and medium-range passes. The news that Wentz has a strong arm and likes to use it forced Pittsburgh to stay with a two-deep safety package that opened up the field. If there is a way to solve Wentz, or to disrupt him, it is still a mystery to the Browns, Bears, and Steelers.

To top it off, Wentz got his butt out of bounds when he found himself scrambling. He took a hit here and there - and could have come out of the game sooner - but it looked a routine day at the office for someone who had seen everything before. Of course, Wentz is seeing it all for the first time.

"Look at the film. Those are plays he made at North Dakota State," Doug Pederson said. "Those are plays he knows he can do."

Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers will no doubt take comfort in the fact that Western Illinois understands how they feel.

This isn't supposed to happen or at least not this quickly. There have been other rookies with strong arms and good minds. There have been very few, however, who can pull off what he did at the start of the second half when he felt pressure, stepped up through a hole in the pocket, and had to decide between running and throwing to Darren Sproles on a wheel route. The linebacker covering Sproles took one step toward Wentz, the computer whirred, and the rookie drifted a touch pass over the linebacker that Sproles gathered and took to the end zone. That's not a play rookies make. Pederson said there's more to come.

"He'll get better with every rep he takes," Pederson said.

This game, this outcome, doesn't change everything, but it changes a lot. Wins over Cleveland and Chicago were nice, but this win against Pittsburgh is a course correction. It means that the Eagles, heading into a bye week, are legitimate postseason contenders. Three weeks ago, that would have been a ludicrous thing to say.

"Am I surprised? A little, but I know this locker room and I know what they're building. They're coming together as a team," Pederson said.

Sunday's game makes it difficult not to look ahead. This season had been all about the future, but it figured to be about the distant future. Wentz has pared the distance between then and now. Like objects in the side view mirror, the future is a lot closer than it once appeared.

The real challenge now isn't to produce success. That's been taken care of with a 3-0 record. The challenge is to handle success. It's one thing to get it together when there are no expectations. Keeping it together when suddenly expectations appear is another thing.

Make no mistake. After what they did to the Steelers on Sunday, the Eagles should be expected to at least contend for the division title. Maybe more. Maybe a lot more. But at least that.

It is a story for all of them to write. They will all have a hand in it. Whatever happens, however, this is really a Carson Wentz story. You had better get used to those.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports