The Eagles entered yet another phase of their season on Sunday - this would be the third, if you're counting - and while it wasn't as good as the first one, it was a lot better than the second.
We knew the Eagles could win when everything goes well, and knew they could lose when the game isn't as beautiful, but against the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, they showed the ability to play a semi-stinker and still win. In the NFL, that might be the most important ability of all.
It's a little harsh to label this one merely a good outcome on a bad day, because there were aspects to Sunday's game that went well. The defensive line got great pressure on Sam Bradford, smacked him around and controlled the line of scrimmage. The special teams contributed a return touchdown and a takeaway. As far as the offense, though, it wasn't all that much better than the week before against Washington.
The second half was an improvement over the first, but on another day, that first half would have been enough to bury them. Carson Wentz threw two interceptions sandwiched around a fumble on three consecutive drives in the first quarter. Those turnovers set up the Vikings at the Eagles' 2-yard line, the Eagles' 17-yard line, and their own 40-yard line. What did Minnesota get from those drives? That would be zero.
"I don't think we started the game very well, that was obvious. The defense picked it up for us," tight end Brent Celek said. "We needed that game big-time, and it doesn't matter how you do it."
They needed it for several reasons. Losses to Detroit and Washington had them heading in the wrong direction after starting the season 3-0. With division games against Dallas and the New York Giants coming up, they needed to change that course before a little losing streak turned into a chainsaw accident.
Where they are now is 4-2 and still in the middle of the race for conference playoff position. More than half the teams in the NFC have either four or five wins. There doesn't appear to be a great team out there and very little separates the contenders. If the Vikings were the best of the lot - by record, anyway - then why can't the Eagles hang around, despite their flaws?
"That's what the NFL is, man," said linebacker Jordan Hicks. "The margin for error is so small in this league, and the ability to capitalize on errors is what you have to do."
That's the best summary of Sunday's game. Both teams committed four turnovers. The Eagles took advantage of the gifts. The Vikings did not.
"On any level of football, your record can't carry you to a win," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. "The talent is too good. You've got to show up every day. That's a good football team with a tough defense and a smart offense. Our ability to get those turnovers is what kept us in the game."
This was also a good turnaround game for Doug Pederson, who desperately needed right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play better than he had against Washington. Pederson's evaluation skills were on the line after choosing Vaitai to replace Lane Johnson. He also needed the whole team to look more prepared on both offense and defense.
"I just think the guys put it in their minds to play better than last week," Pederson said. "They really took it upon themselves to make the corrections."
Vaitai, against a good Minnesota defensive line, did fine. He had some bad moments, but not too many. Pederson used a lot of tight end-heavy sets to help in pass protection and that had an effect, too. Even as the Eagles mixed and matched on the offensive line as right guard Brandon Brooks left the game briefly and as left tackle Jason Peters left with a biceps injury, Vaitai didn't crumble.
Pederson put a lid on the offense after the early turnovers, and relied on the running game and underneath routes to get what they could. With the way the defense was bottling up Bradford, he probably figured the offense didn't need to do very much and he was right.
Wentz sailed a few balls and threw into crowded coverage more than you would like, but it was a very windy day and not all of that was his fault. Still, after completing 67 percent of his passes in the first four games, he has completed 54 percent in the last two. As Pederson suggested, this is a process and it's only just beginning.
"I have to be smarter with the football," Wentz said. "You have to move on. You have to make the next throw. If you dwell on it in this league, it's just going to come back and bite you in the rear."
Turnovers have a way of doing that in the NFL, although not on Sunday. Not against the undefeated Minnesota Vikings. Not on this day when everything didn't go well, but the Eagles still won. They already knew theirs isn't a perfect team. In this game, they proved that no one else's is, either.