CINCINNATI - The Eagles didn't just lose a game or whatever hope lingered for their season on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. They lost, or should have, the organization's belief that better days are right around the corner.
The thorough 32-14 defeat at the hands of a mediocre team officially extinguished the candle on 2016 - although only the slimmest chance had remained, in any case - but now the flame on 2017 and beyond is flickering, too.
This was a game the Eagles had to win in order to keep alive their increasingly threadbare season. Every coach knew it, every player knew it. Every member of the 3-7-1 Bengals knew it, too. The Eagles were going to come into Paul Brown Stadium and give their best shot.
"This was not characteristic of how we coach and how we play," coach Doug Pederson said.
Increasingly, as the team has lost seven of its last nine games, it has, unfortunately, been exactly how they coach and play. The offense is not only under-talented at the skill positions, and increasingly stressed along the line, but the task is made greater by false-start and motion penalties that never seem to get corrected. The defense is soft and pliant, unable to take the opposition out of a comfort zone. In the last three games, against Seattle, Green Bay, and Cincinnati, the defense has allowed an average of 412 net yards per game.
"It's not for a lack of effort," Pederson said, asked if the team has stopped exerting itself in what is now a lost cause. "It's just the discipline of your assignments and jobs and collectively focus on that one play at that one time."
Again, this was a game the Eagles had to have against a 3-7-1 team that was playing without two of its best offensive weapons in receiver A.J. Green and combination back Giovani Bernard. The Bengals, who have been to the playoffs five straight seasons, are all-but-the-math eliminated themselves and didn't have much momentum following a month without a win. The Eagles provided that, however, right from the start. They wilted on both offense and defense in a game they needed for survival. Instead of rising to the occasion, the Eagles played as if the season were already over and they were ready to acknowledge it.
"How do you think we feel about this situation?" cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. "Our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a shot to get to our ultimate goal of the Super Bowl. As you see right now, it's not happening right now."
Not only is it not happening now, but if you view the game as a microcosm of the state of the franchise, what lies ahead looks a little scary, too. Pederson and the Eagles would be better off if this late-season malaise were a matter of effort. Instead, if the coach is right, the problem is talent, preparation and an inability to collectively outplay their individual limitations, even against average opponents. The Eagles, playing for their lives, have lost the last two games by a total score of 59-27 to teams that were a combined 0-7-1 in their previous four starts.
Maybe the worst revelation of the day was that Carson Wentz, heralded as a rising star, didn't keep his head above water any better than his lackluster teammates. The rookie quarterback, for whom the franchise sacrificed so much to draft, was just awful until the game was out of reach and the Bengals were playing deep protection defense.
Wentz was inaccurate and unsettled most of the afternoon. He threw three interceptions and, being charitable, could easily have had a couple more. He got the ball out, but it went all over the place.
The Eagles weren't going to win this game almost regardless of what the quarterback did. But he put roller skates on the slide downhill to a 19-0 deficit in the first half with an 8-for-18 start that stalled drive after drive.
As always, if you are looking to let Wentz off easily, there are reasons to do so. The offensive line was unreliable and Wentz was smacked around or under duress for much of the game. He took 11 hits overall, compared with just one taken by Andy Dalton of Cincinnati. And, sure, his receivers aren't very good, although they caught the ball better this time than in some games. Put it all together, combined with a quick deficit that led to 60 pass attempts, and there was a lot working against Wentz.
That said, there are going to be plenty of times in his career when the other team is taking control of the game and it is the quarterback's job to lead the way and take it back, regardless of the obstacles. When those occasions arise, he'll have to make a better show of it than he did on Sunday and, like it or not, until we see it, we haven't seen it.
"Obviously, we're on a skid," Wentz said. "There's really nothing to change."
He's right about that. Pederson can exhort his team to keep "chopping wood," his favorite expression for staying the course, but the current roster is more of a penknife than a hatchet. Despite a quick start, it hasn't made a dent in the NFL forest this season.
Next season? The season after that? In the ashes of a game like Sunday's, everything is uncertain and, you don't want to hear it, but that includes the quarterback.