EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It took three blocked kicks, a big interception, and the second-best game of Nick Foles’ life for the Eagles to squeak past the two-win New York Giants. The Birds moved to 12-2, secured a first-round bye and crept one win from securing home field throughout the playoffs.
And, for the second week in a row, they exited the field stone-faced and troubled.
“We can’t play like this and win in the postseason, obviously,” head coach Doug Pederson said.
No. No, they can’t.
Not without Carson Wentz, with his strong arm and fleet feet to bail them out. Wentz ended his MVP season last week in a playoff-clinching win over the Rams when he tore his left ACL, which muted any celebration at the Los Angeles Coliseum and sent the Birds into MetLife Stadium on Sunday wondering who they were.
They left with that question unanswered.
Peterson saw this coming. Before the game, for once, his team was flat. He told the players as much after the 34-29 win.
“You have to come prepared. When I say prepared, I think, from a mental standpoint, that emotion,” Pederson said. “That sense of urgency and that dominating swagger that you want to see your team come out of the dressing room with. That was the message today.”
Suddenly, the team with the best record in the NFL is searching for an identity. The Eagles have lost their mojo.
You might lack a running game, and you might lack a front-line passer, but you can’t win a Super Bowl without your mojo.
The Eagles have three weeks to find it. They host the Raiders and Cowboys, both of them fine yardsticks, then have a week off.
Granted, this is an odd circumstance, and uncomfortable. After 14 games, you knew what each edition of the best Patriots teams were. You’ve known since 2012 that the Seahawks win with defensive ferocity and the genius of Russell Wilson. The Steelers have reinvented themselves several times since Ben Roethlisberger arrived, but they always were a concrete entity with two games to play.
The Eagles were predictable, too, before they left for the coast three weeks ago. It centered on Wentz’s wizardry, but it was more than that. The front four were dominant, the backbone of an elite defense. The offensive line was sound. The receivers and defensive backs were good enough. The running backs and linebackers could be brilliant. Wentz and tight end Zach Ertz finished each other’s sentences.
It’s too soon to tell. The Wentz wound is too fresh.
It’s troubling that, in a game that demanded defensive dominance, the defense surrendered a season-high 504 yards. This is no aberration. It has now given up more than 300 yards and more than 23 points for the third consecutive game, after holding opponents under those numbers for four games in a row. The Eagles went to Seattle on Dec. 3 ranked second in third-down defense, at 28.6, one-tenth of a point out of first place, but have allowed a conversion rate of 48.7 in their last three games. Wentz is amazing, but he wasn’t getting the defense off the field on third down.
Eli Manning & Co. were 10-for-18 on third down Sunday, and Manning torched the D for 434 yards, his best game of the season and the fourth-highest total of his 226-game career. This, after he got benched two weeks ago. The Eagles can no longer be considered an elite defense.
“They did exactly what we knew they would do,” acknowledged safety Malcolm Jenkins, “and we weren’t able to stop it.”
That sounds distressing.
Yet, considerations must be made.
It was the Eagles’ third road game in a row. It was against the Giants, an NFC East opponent that had 13 weeks of game tape to review, including what nearly worked for them in Game 3, when the Eagles won on a last-second field goal.
The Giants knew they could blitz with impunity, since left guard Stefan Wisniewski missed the game with a sprained ankle, and since Foles, plodding and deliberate, struggles against blitzes. The Giants knew they could use extra blockers to protect Manning since the Eagles’ cornerbacks remain their weakest link. Ronald Darby had an interception, true, but both he and Jalen Mills got burned for touchdowns, and they combined for three of the team’s seven penalties, three of which were declined.
“We can’t have [seven] penalties and win,” Pederson said.
Well, they can — they’ve had seven or more each of the past four weeks — but it makes it tougher. The Birds averaged 5.6 penalties in their first 10 games. They have averaged 8.8 penalties in their last four games.
So, there were signs of problems even when Wentz was available … but there is evidence of improvement, too.
Nelson Agholor’s continued emergence has kept the passing game viable. He has 22 catches for 264 yards and two touchdowns in this three-game stretch, by far the best run of his rocky, three-year career, and three or four of those plays are superstar-quality.
Chance Warmack ably replaced Wisniewski on Sunday, an excellent sign for a shallow line. The Birds signed special-teams ace Bryan Braman off the street last week, and they blocked those kicks. Braman didn’t get a hand on them, but, well, it takes a village.
And no, there’s no Wentz, but Foles did throw four touchdown passes, and for just the second time in his career. The first time was when he threw seven, at Oakland in 2013. Since then he has been through St. Louis and Kansas City and was reclassified as a backup, and he looked like one at times Sunday … but still, four scores and no picks is nothing to sneeze at. Is it?
There must be answers for the rest of the issues.
Maybe they blitz more to compensate for the spotty cornerback play. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hates to blitz, but desperate times …
Hold on. Are these really desperate times?
This well-coached team is unbeaten at home and has a half-dozen active Pro Bowl candidates. It is diminished, and it is different, but it is not desperate.
Not yet, anyway.
Check back in a couple of weeks.