Missed opportunities plague Eagles in loss
In the long run, this Eagles season is going to have been about progress and hope and all that mushy stuff, about a young quarterback’s development, about a coach who came in and lived up to every bit of the hype that surrounded his courtship and hiring.
This morning, however, it is about missed chances. It is about containing Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and still managing somehow to lose a Wild Card round playoff game, 26-24, to the New Orleans Saints, in the most excruciating fashion, the Eagles unable to stop the drip, drip, drip of their lifeblood as the Saints ran down the seconds for a 32-yard final-play game-winning field goal, gaining the franchise’s first postseason victory on the road.
"It sucks, because there was nothing we could do but watch. They killed us slowly. It was a terrible feeling," LeSean McCoy said.
"It hurts whenever you lose a game that you know you could have won if you’d taken care of the things you should have taken care of," Eagles center Jason Kelce said.
And that really said it all. Anybody who expected the Eagles to lose this game expected it to happen with Brees burnishing his Hall-of-Fame credentials, picking apart the Eagles with a dazzling array of weapons. Brees threw two early interceptions and finished the night with a 75.7 passer rating, nearly 30 points under Nick Foles’ 105.0 (though Brees was very efficient in the second half).
Instead, the Saints, with the NFL’s 25th-ranked rushing attack, missing injured leading rusher Pierre Thomas, relied on their running game all night, most especially on the fatal final drive, set up by a poor Alex Henery kickoff, even worse coverage, and a desperation horse collar tackle by Cary Williams. The Saints ran for 185 yards on 36 carries, 5.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, their 19th-ranked run defense held McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher, to 77 yards on 21 carries, and nobody on the Birds’ offensive line could explain how that happened.
"We didn’t capitalize offensively the way we need to when our defense creates turnovers like that," Kelly said. He said that in stopping McCoy, "they were just doing a good job of getting off blocks and making plays."
The kickoff return was the next-to-last blunder of a series of key miscues that kept Kelly’s 10-win first Eagles season from continuing another playoff round, next week at Carolina. After Foles drove the Eagles 77 yards in eight plays for a 24-23 lead, Henery only got the ball 2 yards into the end zone. Darren Sproles started left, then cut back right and had a wide open field. Had Williams not illegally tackled him, he might have scored. (Which, as you no doubt have pondered by now, would have given the Eagles the ball back with nearly five minutes remaining, and maybe a better chance to control their fate than they got after the penalty set up New Orleans at the Birds’ 48.)
"It’s science, the ball is not going to travel as far when it’s cold," Henery said. (Yes, he actually said that.) "The last kickoff, I was happy with where it went. It was two yards deep, into the wind. He just got outside of us. We have to cover better, and we could always have better kicks."
Not only did the Saints not wither in the much-discussed cold (except for their deep passing game), their two kickers actually handled it better than Henery.
Eagles’ special teams ace Colt Anderson blamed himself for the botched late coverage. “We knew what they were going to do. We just got caught,” he said. “You’ve got to give credit to them.”
Before that, there were plenty of other agonizing gaffes:
*The Eagles had first-and-10 from the Saints’ 15 late in the first quarter. They lost 8 yards on a screen to Brent Celek, then Foles held onto the ball forever, ultimately taking a sack back to the 34. A 4-yard McCoy run left Henery with a 48-yard field goal attempt, which he did not come close to making.
“I was trying to make a play,” Foles said. “They dropped into coverage, and every time I had a guy open, they swiped and they kept swiping. At the last second, when I was thinking about throwing the ball away, the guy grabbed my leg and sort of spun me, and at that time it was really hard to throw it away. It was a bad decision by me.”
Henery said: “I’m not happy about it. It’s one of those things that when the weather is cold, you either hit it great, or if you don’t hit it well, it’s not going to travel far.”
*With the Eagles down 13-7 in the third quarter, third and 4 from their 30, Foles hit Riley Cooper across the middle. Whatever his issues getting off the line sometimes, Cooper’s hands have been amazing this season. This time, with at least 30 yards of open real estate in front of him, he dropped the ball. The Eagles went three-and-out for the second time in a row to start the second half.
"It happened at a crappy time, for sure," Cooper said. "It was my second drop of the year. It’s tough, but there isn’t a receiver that catches them all."
*Williams was shaken up and left the field for one play. Sub Roc Carmichael gave up a 14-yard reception to wideout Kenny Stills on third and 12, the key play of a drive that ended with Mark Ingram running the ball in from the 4 for a 20-7 Saints lead.
*Rookie safety Earl Wolff was active but never saw the field, Wolff having missed most of the practice week trying to get his injured knee ready. In Wolff's absence, veteran Patrick Chung played the whole game. Chung did exactly what Eagles fans feared he would do, getting burned for a 40-yard Robert Meachem reception that set up the field goal that gave the Saints a 23-17 lead.
*After the kickoff return-horse collar debacle, the Eagles stuffed Ingram for a 1-yard loss. The Saints had second and 11 from the Birds’ 49. An undrafted rookie running back named Khiry Robinson zipped 13 yards up the middle for a first down at the Eagles’ 36. After that, the winning field goal seemed inevitable.
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis acknowledged that his emphasis on stopping the long pass led to the Saints’ running success. Even on the final drive, Davis said he still had to account for Graham, the NFL’s most dynamic tight end, and Sproles in the passing game. But again, just like on the Williams horse collar, the consequences of not covering Graham or Sproles right then, having them score, might not have been as dire as watching the Saints bleed the clock and kick the field goal.
"I just told them I was proud of them, and for us being together such a short amount of time, how they acted and how they came to work every single day, as a staff how much we appreciated them, how they made this work from an environment standpoint, a really special feeling every single day when you go to the NovaCare Complex, and just thanked them for that,” Kelly said.
Foles was red-eyed when he stepped to the podium.
"This doesn’t feel good. We wanted to keep playing, but it is what it is," he said after completing 23 of 33 passes for 195 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Foles was unable to get the ball to DeSean Jackson until Saints corner Keenan Lewis left the game with a possible concussion early in the third quarter; Jackson was visibly unhappy with his three catches for 53 yards.
"I’m proud of my teammates. I’m proud of the crowd today … I’m proud of the city of Philadelphia, for this season … It’s tough to lose, and it hurts,” Foles said. "I’m hurting inside right now in my heart, but I’m going to keep my head held high because I love my teammates, I love this city, I love this team, and I love this organization because I know the heart of it. The heart of it is the heart of Philadelphia. Like coach Kelly said, we fight, and we’re going to keep fighting."