LOS ANGELES — Carson Wentz waited at the entrance of the locker room when his teammates arrived after a playoff-clinching 43-35 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. He greeted them, congratulated them on an NFC East championship, and celebrated a benchmark that eluded Philadelphia since 2013.
But pending the results of the MRI exam on Monday, Wentz might not play with them for the rest of the season and postseason. He left Sunday’s win in the third quarter and there are fears that he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The Eagles beat one of the NFC’s best teams and are the first team in the NFL to clinch a playoff spot, yet those accomplishments pale compared to the significance of Wentz’s injury.
“Until I know more tomorrow, it’s hard to say,” coach Doug Pederson said. “But listen, there’s a lot of leaders on this football team. And you saw that tonight.”
NFC East Champs! So proud of the resiliency of this team. 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! #Proverbs3:5-6
— Carson Wentz (@cj_wentz) December 11, 2017
The Eagles are 11-2, owners of the best record in the NFL, but they could be without their franchise player. It could alter the course of what has been a magical season for the Eagles unless backup Nick Foles can keep winning in place of a potential MVP.
“It’s tough on us,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “We’ve faced all kind of adversity throughout the season, losing guys. That’s our leader, for sure. He’s led us all this way, no doubt about it. It definitely hurts, but it’s fortunate that we could close out that game for him.”
Wentz was in the third quarter of perhaps his finest game with the Eagles when he tried rushing for a touchdown and took a big hit while diving for points. A penalty flag nullified the play, and Wentz’s gait appeared different on the next four plays. He couldn’t move like he normally does, and even though he remained in the game to throw a clutch a fourth-down touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, he did not celebrate as he normally does. Wentz walked gingerly to the sideline, where the medical staff awaited.
They quickly evaluated Wentz in a makeshift blue tent and then brought him into the locker room. It was determined that he would not return to the game, and Foles started warming up on the sideline.
The long-term ramifications of Wentz’s injury will be the story that matters most in Philadelphia, but the Eagles still had 17 minutes remaining in a crucial game and needed to survive Wentz’s departure.
“You’re just trying to get the win,” Foles said. “The defense did an awesome job stepping up when Carson went down. The guys really rallied.”
The Rams took a 35-31 lead with a touchdown on their next drive, meaning Foles entered the game trailing by four points. A playoff bid hung in the balance. Foles wasn’t Wentz, but he brought the Eagles in position for a 41-yard field goal by Jake Elliott to cut the deficit to one point.
Then Jim Schwartz’s defense rebounded from its worst game yet this year with a critical stop. Chris Long sacked Rams quarterback Jared Goff on a first down at the Rams’ 35-yard line and knocked the ball out of Goff’s grasp. Rodney McLeod scooped the fumble and brought it to the 25-yard line to give the Eagles a chance to take the lead.
Elliott’s 33-yard field goal put the Eagles on top, and the defense came through with a key stop to allow the Eagles to run out the clock before the defense scored once more on the final play. Long’s sack was the play of the game for the Eagles defense, and they outplayed one of the NFL’s best offenses in the fourth quarter when it most mattered.
“You lose your quarterback, it puts a little pressure on your run game to execute and your defense to get a stop in key moment,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “We definitely felt that was the moment in the game we had to step up and make plays.”
Wentz finished 23 of 41 for 291 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. He broke Sonny Jurgensen’s single-season franchise record with his 33rd touchdown pass of the season. Foles went 6 of 10 for 42 yards. Torrey Smith had six catches for 100 yards, and Jay Ajayi rushed for 78 yards.
The Eagles were on the road for nine days, departing last Saturday for Seattle and practicing all week in Orange County. They knew the importance of this West Coast stretch against two contending teams and the significance of a win against the NFC West-leading Rams. So the celebration wasn’t muted despite Wentz’s absence — they still rushed the field and posed for photos and wore baseball caps commemorating the accomplishment.
“Jubilation,” Pederson said of the locker room. “This is one of the heavyweight fights. …We found a way. This team has been resilient all season long. On the road, back-to-back, we spent a week out here. The guys did a nice job focusing in.”
Wentz’s injury was the dominant story of the afternoon, but it was otherwise one of the most exciting games of the season against a team that the Eagles might see again in January. It was an ominous start for the Eagles when Wentz threw an interception on the opening drive and the Rams took a 7-0 lead, but the Eagles recovered with three consecutive touchdowns. Each touchdown pass was to a tight end — Brent Celek had the first, Trey Burton had the next two — even though Zach Ertz missed the game with a concussion.
The Rams regained the lead in the third quarter after Goff threw two touchdown passes and they blocked an Eagles punt that was returned for a score. That set the stage for the 15-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter that might prove to be Wentz’s final drive of the season.
He injured his knee late in the drive and still took four more snaps and threw the fourth-down touchdown pass — “It just shows how tough he really is,” Pederson said — before reality of the injury was realized.
After the game, Wentz was seen with his left knee in a brace. He wore a shirt that read “AO1” for “Audience of One,” and he sent a tweet that shared how proud he was of his team and how he’ll lean on his faith during this time.
A Wentz injury was the worst-case scenario this season. But there are still three regular-season games remaining, and Sunday’s win guaranteed at least one playoff game. Wentz’s teammates greeted him when they entered the locker room and left with a uniform message: They’re not finished yet.
“At the end of the day, our goals are still out front of us,” Jenkins said, “and we’re excited about the opportunity to continue to compete for a championship.”
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