EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Once the Eagles clinched a first-round bye on Sunday afternoon, coach Doug Pederson shifted the focus away from the accomplishment and onto what it would take to be successful once they get there.
Pederson gathered his team after a suspenseful 34-29 win over the New York Giants on Sunday to congratulate them on checking off another box among the team’s goals before emphasizing that the way they played on Sunday won’t allow them to check off any boxes in January.
“Can’t play like this and win in the postseason,” Pederson said. “Got to come prepared. And when I say prepared, I think from a mental standpoint, that emotion, that sense of urgency, that dominating swagger that you want to see your team come out aggressing with.”
Pederson’s sentiment came after the Eagles advanced to 12-2 while Nick Foles threw four touchdowns in his first start replacing Carson Wentz. The biggest concern about the Eagles’ postseason prospects might not be replacing Wentz but instead fixing a defense that allowed 504 yards to the lowly Giants, who entered Sunday averaging 208 fewer yards per game.
There was reason to be encouraged by Foles, who went 24 of 38 for 237 yards and no interceptions, although the Giants have the league’s worst-ranked defense, so the effectiveness should not be a surprise. Pederson adhered to a week-long pledge of remaining aggressive despite the quarterback change. Four Eagles caught touchdown passes from Foles, with Nelson Agholor’s seven catches for 59 yards leading the group.
Said Foles: “This whole journey and being back in Philly, it’s crazy if I’m being honest, just wearing the Eagles jersey … [The receivers] made some big plays today to help with those touchdowns. …It’s been a special moment, for sure.”
The Eagles also benefited from the special teams, which blocked an extra point, a field goal, and a punt, all three of which were critical to the outcome. They took four points off the board, and the blocked punt set up an Eagles touchdown. In a close game, those plays mattered.
As a result, you can go ahead and make plans for the first weekend of January. The Eagles will be off, the reward for ensuring they finish the regular season as one of the two best teams in the NFC. They return home for a Christmas night game against the Oakland Raiders and a New Year’s Eve game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles need to win just one of those to clinch the top seed in NFC, ensuring only home games on a potential Super Bowl path.
But the Eagles only have a chance of playing into February if they look better than they did on Sunday.
“We gave them a lot out there,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said, referencing penalties and missed opportunities. “Stuff like that, when you play good teams – real good teams – it’s going to put you in a bind to win a game.”
Pederson was most vexed by the Giants converting 10 of 18 third downs – an outlier compared to their 33-percent conversion rate on third down entering the game, and the 30.2 percent the Eagles have held opposing offenses to this season.
“That’s your story right there,” Pederson said.
It was apparent from the opening drive when the Giants converted three third downs on the way to a touchdown. One of those conversions came on a defensive holding penalty by Jalen Mills on a play when the Eagles would have limited the Giants to a field goal. It was one of seven Eagles penalties.
Foles responded by leading the Eagles downfield on a touchdown drive, with the highlight coming when he eluded Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to throw to Torrey Smith on a play that resulted in a pass interference. Foles heard all week how he doesn’t have Wentz’s athleticism, but he looked nimble enough Sunday.
“I watch Carson a lot,” Foles said. “I channeled my inner-Carson Wentz right there. Just made a play.”
The Giants scored on their next two drives, taking a 20-7 lead after having topped 17 points just once in their previous seven games. The touchdowns included a 67-yarder to Sterling Shepard when the Eagles were chasing Shepard in coverage – a pick play helped – and couldn’t tackle him in the open field.
Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby, who had an uneven afternoon, made one of the key plays of the game in the second quarter when he intercepted Manning and pranced through traffic for a 37-yard return to the Giants’ 20-yard line.
Foles took advantage of the favorable field position by finding Zach Ertz for a 10-yard touchdown, and he benefited from a short field again on the next drive when Kamu Grugier-Hill blocked a Giants punt to set up a 13-yard touchdown to Trey Burton. The Eagles needed less than three minutes to come back from a 13-point deficit.
“It’s a game of momentum,” Foles said, “so that was a huge play in the game to get us going in the right direction.”
After building an eight-point lead in the third quarter, it looked as if the Eagles could cruise to a win when they forced the Giants into a three-and-out. Then Najee Goode was flagged for a neutral-zone infraction on a punt to give the Giants new life, and Manning made the Eagles pay when Tavarres King beat Darby on a short slant and sprinted to a 57-yard touchdown.
Because of a blocked extra point earlier in the game, the Giants needed a two-point conversion. They failed to convert, and the Eagles’ 31-29 margin came in handy in the fourth quarter.
Malcolm Jenkins thwarted the Giants’ chance to take the lead by blocking a 48-yard field-goal attempt, and the Eagles drove to the Giants’ 2-yard line with the clock ticking below four minutes. Facing a fourth-and-goal, Pederson sent kicker Jake Elliott on the field instead of trying for a touchdown to make it a two-score game.
“Go with five points,” Pederson said, “and a touchdown has to beat you.”
Pederson was right. The Giants drove into Eagles territory for a chance to win, but they needed to reach the end zone. That forced the Giants to try to win on a fourth-and-goal from the 11-yard line. Manning’s pass sailed incomplete – Giants players thought there was a penalty – and the Eagles held onto a win that was closer than expected.
Pleas for a better performance are easier to digest after a win, and the Eagles boarded their buses for a trip down the Jersey Turnpike with a first-round bye clinched and a chance to seal home-field advantage on Christmas.
“We still have everything right in front of us,” Pederson said. “We have a great opportunity Christmas night to do some more and in the postseason.”
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