CARSON, Calif. — In the California town that might as well have been named in his honor, given the composition of the crowd, Carson Wentz took another step forward Sunday.
Wentz shepherded an 11-play drive (plus two kneeldowns) that took the Eagles from their 25 to the Los Angeles Chargers’ 15, and most important, took the StubHub Center clock from six minutes, 44 seconds remaining to all zeroes in a 26-24 Eagles victory.
When the drive began, Wentz’s hot start (5 of his first 6 for 92 yards and a touchdown) had faded into 14 for 28 for 220 and still just the one TD. It was hard to find a lot of blame for the second-year quarterback; the Eagles’ running game was carrying the load (214 yards on 42 carries on the day) and the Chargers, after some early defensive lapses, seemed to be winning a lot of matchups with Wentz’s wideouts. Wentz’s offensive line protected him pretty well, but he took more than a few hits, with Joey Bosa firing in from one end and Melvin Ingram from the other.
With the clock ticking down in another wild and woolly fourth quarter for the Eagles’ defense, Wentz and the Eagles could not afford to give the ball back to Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ weapons. So they didn’t.
Wentz went 3-for-3 for 22 yards on the clinching drive. Three backs combined for eight runs and 39 yards. No mistakes, three third-down conversions; one by pass, two by run; and the Eagles were 3-1 and had doubled their 2016 road-win total.
“We were hoping we were going to end [the drive] either in a victory formation or the end zone,” Wentz said.
Wentz’s friend and favorite target, tight end Zach Ertz, said, “He’s mature beyond his years; he’s 24, almost 25 years old (on Dec. 30). He’s a veteran quarterback the way he approaches the game, on and off the field. He’s our fearless leader.” Ertz caught a team-high five passes for 81 yards Sunday.
A yardstick of Wentz’s maturity: his rookie year, the Eagles were 1-6 in games decided by seven points or less. This year they’re 2-1, and they had no real chance to pull the Kansas City game out in the final minutes.
“It’s really big for us, especially to be where we’re at, starting with three out of four on the road,” Wentz said. “Last year we could never find a way to win tight ballgames. This year, obviously, we’re starting to learn that a little bit.”
Comparing Wentz to Rivers Sunday, the 35-year-old, six-time Pro Bowl Chargers quarterback certainly had the statistical edge – 22 for 38 for 347 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 75-yard strike to Tyrell Williams. But there was more to the story. Rivers’ fumble, forced by Chris Long, started the Eagles on the game’s first scoring drive, on which Wentz may have thrown the prettiest ball of the day, a 36-yard gain to Nelson Agholor down the right sideline.
“My quarterback is a competitor, “Agholor (three catches, 58 yards) said. “He ‘s a great person, and leads by example every day.”
Agholor credited the Chargers with having “a real disciplined defense.”
While Wentz was sharp out of the gate, Rivers and the Chargers sputtered. Rivers completed one of his first six passes as the Eagles took a 10-0 lead in front of a crowd that seemed evenly split between green and blue attire — and if anything, that’s being generous to the Charger fans. Rivers’ seventh pass was the long TD to Williams, which drove home the need for the Eagles, with rookie Rasul Douglas and second-year-man Jalen Mills starting at corner, to keep the ball away from the Chargers and melt the clock with their run game. The Birds knew this coming in and planned accordingly – the Bolts were ranked 31st against the run.
The Eagles, who led the NFL in time of possession even before Sunday, kept Rivers stewing on the sideline for 39:18, leaving the Chargers just 20:42 with the ball. For a while in the fourth quarter, it seemed the transplants from San Diego might win anyway; the Eagles kept misfiring when it was time to close out a drive, leaving Jake Elliott to bail them out with a 4-for-4 field-goal performance.
Rivers had to throw; his team never led and was down 19-10 going into the fourth quarter. The Eagles, conversely, wanted to be careful with their lead.
“Passing yards don’t correlate to winning in this league,” said rookie Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, whose team dropped to 0-4. Lynn also noted that “our defense in the first half was on the field 10 minutes longer than our offense.”
This should have been an easier victory than it turned out to be – the Eagles led in first downs, 26 to 18, and they didn’t turn the ball over. But offensive line penalties helped blunt back-to-back drives in the second half.
“We just have to be better when we get in those long red zone situations,” Ertz said.
“That’s a tough defense, in my opinion,” center Jason Kelce said. “You have to be able to run the ball on them. They give you a lot of underneath stuff, but it’s hard to go down the field … I thought [Wentz] made a lot of really good decisions.”