To the 2017 Eagles:
We give up.
Seriously — we give up. There’s nothing left to doubt. All season, you’ve played us like some carnival game, your surface riddled with holes that we mistook for weaknesses. Every time something popped out, we would swing and we’d miss, and then you’d smile at us as if you knew something we didn’t. It was always the same: After you lost your starting middle linebacker, and then your starting left tackle, and then a starting quarterback en route for the league MVP. Nothing changed: your words, your body language, your winning of games.
Maybe it always feels that way when a team you’ve covered all season reaches this level. The more time you spend around something, the more visible its warts tend to become. I suppose you could say the same about the thing’s positive attributes, but in a controlled environment where only one team finishes as king, the warts tend to win out. Did they see it coming in Baltimore and San Francisco in 2012? In Chicago in 2006? In Carolina and Tampa Bay and Arizona and Oakland during their respective runs?
Or did it feel like the way it does now, the shock so palpable that you feel the need to go back and rewind the whole season to discover what it was you should have noticed at the time.
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No doubt, there were some early signs. Those first three weeks were a devil of a schedule. They’d lost five straight games to Jay Gruden’s Redskins when they traveled down to Washington for the season opener. Then came a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face Andy Reid, followed by the home opener against a Giants team that went 11-5 last season. To emerge from that stretch 2-1 with a 13-point win over the Redskins and an impressive performance against the Chiefs in one of the NFL’s most difficult environments to play? That said something about this team, and maybe some of us missed that.
About that defense
In our defense, there was the defense. Nothing about what we saw in the first month of the season suggested that Jim Schwartz’s unit could develop into something other than a liability, let alone a strength. After allowing 800-plus yards and 48 points in their wins over the Giants and Chargers, the Eagles were in the bottom quartile of the league in total defense and the bottom 35 percent in scoring defense.
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And here’s where we need to start singling out players for some personalized mea culpas. Topping the list is Patrick Robinson, who all of us left for dead — or, at least, benched — after the first few weeks of training camp. Maybe what we were really seeing was how good this Eagles offense was. Whatever the case, the guy has played nearly 70 percent of the snaps on defense this season, second most of any cornerback on the team. When Ronald Darby went down with that gruesome-looking dislocated ankle in the season opener, disaster seemed imminent. But this secondary has somehow transformed into a unit that can be counted on. Credit Corey Graham with filling some of that void. One of the under-the-radar storylines of Sunday’s win over the Vikings was the load that the veteran safety shouldered. He was on the field for 52 percent of the Eagles’ snaps, often playing deep to allow Malcolm Jenkins to play down in the box. It was just the third game since October that he logged that many snaps (and one of the other two was the meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, when he was on the field for every defensive down).
While we’re on the topic, credit to Schwartz. When he first arrived here in Philly, we trained a lot of our focus on his supposed Wide-9 approach. But his scheme this season has shattered the labels we’d saddled him with. Yes, pressure from the front four has been a significant factor in the Eagles’ success, but Schwartz has also mixed things up with the blitz. What we’ve seen throughout the season are opponents that look overwhelmed and confused.
The list goes well beyond those names. Vinny Curry, Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski, LeGarrette Blount. Nick Foles and Doug Pederson, above all else.
Major Injuries, No Problem
This Eagles team has spent most of this season passing every test that we swore would trip them up. Their Hall of Fame left tackle went down and they scored 30-plus in each of the next four games. The vaunted Broncos defense came to town and they hung it with 419 yards and 51 points. The lost their quarterback and then watched his replacement throw four touchdowns in his first start.
We doubted them against the Falcons, and then against the Vikings, and now, against the Patriots, we’re suppose to doubt them, too.
No longer. These Patriots are not invincible, a fact that was on display throughout the first 3 1/2 quarters of their AFC championship win over the Jaguars. This is a team that lost to the Dolphins by a touchdown just six weeks ago, a team that has lost as many Super Bowls as it has won over the last 12 seasons, a team that allowed itself to fall behind by 25 points in last year’s Falcons choke.
They are still quarterbacked by a guy named Tom Brady, but that guy is now 40 years old. The secret to disrupting him is no secret at all: Make him move his feet. The Giants have done it and the Broncos have done it and this Eagles defense has improved to a point that it is rational to think that it can do it as well.
That might sound absurd to those who see only Brady vs. Nick Foles. Hey, maybe they’re right. But we’re tired of being wrong.