LOS ANGELES – It was bound to happen.
Carson Wentz gambled with the football gods one time too many and paid the price.
The Eagles beat the Rams, 43-35, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They clinched their first NFC divisional title in four years. And they jumped back into the lead for the No. 1 conference seed in the playoffs.
But it could be the most bittersweet postseason-clinching victory in franchise history if an MRI on Monday confirms what Eagles doctors reportedly believe Wentz suffered Sunday – a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“NFC East Champs! So proud of the resiliency of this team,” Wentz said on Twitter. “Such a special group of men. And I greatly appreciate all the prayers! I know my God is a powerful one with a perfect plan. Time to just lean in to him and trust whatever the circumstances! Proverbs 3:5-6.”
It’s difficult to look at the Eagles quarterback’s injury and question the way in which he placed himself in harm’s way. Wentz is Wentz because he’s fearless. The Eagles posted 31 points on the Rams in less than three full quarters because he threw countless passes from the pocket, standing in the fire for as many as six seconds, before enduring another hit.
The last touchdown Wentz tossed – a team-record 33d – came after the blow to his knee. He ran four plays after getting leveled by Rams linebacker Mark Barron, and Wentz didn’t say a word to his teammates except to call the plays in the huddle.
On fourth down, Wentz limped to the sideline until he realized that Eagles coach Doug Pederson was going for it. And then he stood in the pocket one more time, having no choice but to remain there because he couldn’t run, and flicked a pass that Alshon Jeffery somehow miraculously plucked inches from the grass for six points and a 31-28 lead.
“It just shows how tough he is,” Pederson said, “to be a little banged up at that time and then on fourth down to make that throw.”
Tough guy. Numerous Eagles used the term to describe Wentz. It’s the ultimate compliment in football. But being a tough guy at quarterback can sometimes get you into trouble. Wentz dodged significant injury for the first 28 games of his NFL career. And there have been moments when it seemed as if he might not get back up.
But he always did until he didn’t on Sunday.
Quarterbacks that run and don’t give themselves up, however, have a giant bull’s eye on their jerseys and it was increasingly evident that defenders were going to take their shots at Wentz when given the opportunity. The Seahawks went after him last week, and while he avoided injury, he fumbled shy of the goal line.
Wentz broke his ribs in his first preseason game last year in the pocket, but his aggressiveness has been an issue since the start. He had gotten better at protecting himself as a rookie, and started this season by sliding more often than not, but as the game has slowed and his confidence has grown, Wentz has taken more chances.
Two months ago, he lowered his shoulder and tried to run over Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis at the goal line. He didn’t get in. A few weeks later, he escaped from a scrum of Redskins. Two weeks ago, against the Bears, he spun out of would-be sack, ducked, and dove for a first down.
Wentz thrills. You don’t want to take away his athleticism.
“We just have conversations about understanding where you are and what you’re doing and getting down and sliding to protect your body,” Pederson said. “He’s a quarterback. He understands that.”
But there’s a time and place. And first down at the 2-yard line isn’t the time the go full steam ahead.
With just under four minutes left in the third quarter, Wentz escaped from the pocket to his right. He made a beeline for the end zone. Defensive end Morgan Fox gave chase. Wentz had him beat. But as he lunged over the goal line Barron came up and lowered his right shoulder.
Wentz’s momentum and Fox’s nudge from behind against Barron’s thrust resulted in a car crash collision. The quarterback took a moment to get up, but it was clear that he had been hurt. Was it his ribs? His head? His leg?
To add insult to injury, literally, Wentz’s touchdown was negated by a Lane Johnson penalty. When he finally looked over at the sideline, he touched his left thigh to indicate where he had been injured.
“I knew something was up,” Pederson said, “didn’t know the extent of it, obviously.”
Pederson called two straights handoffs to running back Corey Clement from the shotgun. On third down, Wentz took the snap from the shotgun again, and barely moved before he misfired a pass to Jeffery. But they connected on the next try.
Wentz hobbled to the sideline, spoke briefly to backup Nick Foles, and went into a blue pop-up tent.
“I saw him favoring his leg a little bit,” Foles said. “He toughed it and threw a touchdown. He’s one of the toughest players I’ve played with.”
Foles began warming up. Wentz emerged about five minutes later and headed indoors with a towel over his head. His day was over. Is his season? Foles gallantly guided the Eagles to victory, but who knows what would have happened had Chris Long not forced a late Jared Goff fumble?
Sunday was supposed to be Goff vs. Wentz, the 2016 No. 1 pick vs. the No. 2. It was a glimpse at the future of the NFL. But Wentz’s future is cloudy. The Eagles’ 2017 season is in jeopardy but there are also ramifications for next year and beyond if Wentz has torn his ACL.
“Everyone’s really excited because we put in a lot of work this season. It’s been a great team effort. Carson’s been a big piece of that puzzle,” Foles said, “But, yeah, you have your starting quarterback go down. It’s emotional.”
Wentz was the first to greet his teammates as they entered the locker room after the game. And he celebrated with the Eagles. But as the 24-year-old quarterback and his team flew home late Sunday night, the Southern California skies were ominous.
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