It takes a lot to impress Donnie Jones.
He’s 37. He has played with five franchises and punted in the playoffs for two of them. Even after all of that, he’d never experienced anything like the Eagles’ 27-24, last-second win over the Giants on Sunday.
“In 14 years of playing football, that’s probably one of the greatest wins, if not the greatest ultimate team victory that I’ve ever been around,” Jones said. “It took a collective group effort. Nobody gave up.”
The afterglow made his stubbled face (and head) shine, and it was a joyous moment, but Jones’ analysis was unbiased. His exuberance was genuine. He sees intriguing potential all around him.
The win proved the Eagles to be a deep, disciplined, ravenous team. It has every chance to come out on top of the NFC East. Now 2-1 overall and 2-0 in the division, the Eagles discovered a running game, protected their quarterback and overcame a full docket of issues Sunday.
They had to be a good team to win and are a better team having won, because they’re learning how to win.
“What we didn’t do last year — we didn’t finish games,” said defensive end Brandon Graham. “I think we’re getting over that hump.”
Graham referred to late losses last season to the Lions, Cowboys and the second time the Eagles played Washington. The 2016 Eagles, freshly reconstructed by Howie Roseman and coached by rookie Doug Pederson, were a much less proficient assemblage than this 2017 edition.
Granted, the Giants entered 0-2, and the Eagles have become Eli Manning’s personal millstone, but both teams went into the game with issues on their offensive lines, neither team could run the ball and both are led by head coaches who are learning on the job, to put it kindly. Still, by the second half Sunday, the challenge for the Eagles, already playing without four of their defensive backs, had become severe. Running back Darren Sproles hurt a hand, then middle linebacker Jordan Hicks hurt an ankle, then defensive tackle Fletcher Cox hurt a calf. In a blink, the Birds lost their best players at those positions.
They staggered, but they did not fail. A 14-0 Eagles lead early in the third quarter turned into a 21-14 deficit midway through the fourth and a 24-21 hole with about 3 minutes to play. But both times the Birds tied it on their next possession and, finally, turned a bad punt into a 61-yard, last-second, game-winning field goal, by a rookie, who had missed a 52-yard try in the third quarter.
Which is the entire point.
Three games into the season, this has become a deep and complete team, able to improvise and succeed.
The Eagles lost kicker Caleb Sturgis to injury after Game 1, picked up Jake Elliott from the Bengals’ practice squad and, on Sunday, watched him win a game for them.
Yes, four defensive backs missed the game due to injury, but corners Rasul Douglas and Patrick Robinson each snagged an interception.
When Sproles left the game, a measure of explosiveness and versatility went with him. But his absence created more opportunities for for Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement, who combined for 18 carries, 93 yards and a touchdown.
When Hicks departed, the defense lost its quarterback, but Nigel Bradham moved one slot over, assumed play-calling duties for the first time in his career and kept the unit together.
When Cox, the $102 million linchpin of the defense, limped off, backup Beau Allen and sixth-round rookie Elijah Qualls took turns rumbling in and did their level best, and it was good enough.
“So many people down. So many people had to step up,” said linebacker Mychal Kendricks, whose deflection near midfield led to an interception in the third quarter. “We’ve got players all around. We’re going to have to keep this up if we plan on being anything special.”
They show plenty of indications that they might, indeed, be something special. They won at Washington, had a chance against the Chiefs (who remain unbeaten) and beat the Giants late. Nothing seems to shake them; not even weird lineup alterations.
Pederson demoted starting left guard Isaac Seumalo after Game 2 but, ignoring orthodoxy and giving the job to one player, he schemed a rotation of Chance Warmack and Stefan Wisniewski. Somehow, it worked. Eagles running backs gained 171 rushing yards on 33 carries Sunday. They had 33 carries in the first two games combined.
The Giants couldn’t run, either, and they feared the Eagles’ stout defensive line, so they often ran an up-tempo offense predicated on short, quick throws. The Eagles never sacked Manning. They seldom hit him. That’s what kept the game close.
Resilience won it.
LeGarrette Blount, who had 12 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown, understands resilience. It is what has made his last two employers, the Steelers and Patriots, two of the NFL’s flagship franchises: innovation, perseverance and 53 men each spending each week single-mindedly preparing to do his own job as best he can.
What can a win like this do for an ascending team? Blount was blunt:
“A win like this can put you at 2-1.”
In this moment, for this team, 2-1 is pretty impressive.