Believe it or not, there was a point, well into the Eagles’ blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 18, when the outcome had a chance to be different. Just a chance.
Josh Adams ran 28 yards for an Eagles touchdown, the visitors trailed 17-7 midway through the second quarter, then their defense forced a three-and-out. The Eagles’ offense started moving again, driving into New Orleans territory. Third-and-3 from the Saints’ 46, with 4 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the half. Drain more clock, score a touchdown or even kick a field goal, you’re solidly in the game at halftime, against the hottest team in the league.
Instead, there was a blocking mixup, and untouched defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins sacked Carson Wentz. The Eagles punted. The Saints scored on their next five possessions – which might have happened anyway, but we’ll never know.
Stefen Wisniewski was in at center as All-Pro Jason Kelce dealt with an elbow injury. Wisniewski said afterward that he and left guard Isaac Seumalo miscommunicated, that Wisniewski didn’t make the right blocking call on the sack.
And the snowball kept rolling until the Eagles were buried under an avalanche.
That’s the thing with blowouts in the NFL. Rarely is one team that much more talented than another. Sometimes the things one team does well make for a fortunate matchup with a team that isn’t good at handling those particular things. Sometimes, a team bumbles its way into a situation that just feeds on itself.
The 48-7 loss the Eagles suffered at New Orleans contained a bit of both of those elements. Critical defensive injuries left the visitors really poorly equipped to deal with Drew Brees, who threw four touchdown passes. And when the Eagles’ offense couldn’t give the defense even a little bit of cover, chaos ensued.
It was the only game all season the Eagles lost by more than a touchdown. Maybe the 13-3 Saints were that much better than anyone else on the schedule. Or maybe they played the Eagles at exactly the right time.
On Tuesday, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said that he regretted not being able to express his respect for Chicago Bears kicker (and ex-Eagle) Cody Parkey after Parkey’s 43-yard missed field goal with five seconds remaining gave the Eagles a 16-15 wild-card round playoff victory over the Bears Sunday. Schwartz brought that up as a way of illustrating that it’s never just one thing that causes a loss, that Parkey would have to take the heat for everything Chicago didn’t do that could have changed the outcome.
“Everybody recognizes the play at the end,” Schwartz said, “but there are probably a dozen plays in there that you say, ‘Wow, if this play had gone different, maybe it wouldn’t have rolled downhill, and maybe if we made that interception, or we made that sack, or we didn’t get this penalty, and we had not missed this tackle. Maybe that play is different, if we got that third-down stop, if our offense had scored.’
“So we all live in that world, as players and coaches. We understand how close the margins are and things like that, and it's not just the plays at the end that mean something. It's the plays within, and I think there's a lot that we can learn and a lot that we can also gain confidence from, from that first [New Orleans] game.”
Schwartz laid it on a little thick Tuesday, in emphasizing that past is not necessarily prologue for the Saints and the Eagles; if Schwartz were a basketball coach, he’d be Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers,” measuring the distance from the state championship game rim to the floor. But his point was worth making.
“Neither team is going to start this game with a lead and neither team is going to start with an advantage because of something that happened, it seems like another season ago, at least to us,” Schwartz said. “Each game is going to start out new, and we’re going to have to play good for 60 minutes in this game, not make up for anything that happened eight weeks ago, and not get down about anything that happened.”
The Los Angeles Chargers’ 23-17 wild-card round victory at Baltimore last weekend is a case in point. On Dec. 22, at home in Carson, Calif., the Chargers lost to the Ravens, 22-10, which isn’t 48-7, but it was a decisive loss, in which Philip Rivers threw two interceptions, was sacked four times, and compiled a 51.7 passer rating.
Two weeks later, on the road, the Chargers took an early lead and kept building on it until they led 23-3 with 9:09 left in the fourth quarter. Rivers threw no interceptions and was sacked just once. Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked seven times, and Baltimore’s running game, which accounted for 159 yards in the first meeting, picked up only 90. Most of the key players were the same, but the game was very different.
The Eagles gave up 546 net yards the last time they faced the Saints, 173 of them on the ground. Schwartz noted Tuesday that his defense has been tackling better, doing a much better job against the run, in winning six of seven since that day.
The Bears – who very obviously are not the Saints, offensively – gained 65 rushing yards Sunday, on 18 carries, 21 of those yards on an end-around by Taylor Gabriel. It was the fourth straight game in which the Eagles’ foe gained fewer than 100 rushing yards.
“I think that when you talk about run defense, people generally talk about the front seven and their ability. But it’s layered well beyond that. It is the front seven. It’s every man knowing their job. It’s finishing tackling,” Schwartz said. “One guy missing a tackle can make a whole scheme look bad. It can make 10 other players look bad. Most of the tackling, like I’ve said before, has to do with positioning and knowing where your teammates are and where you fit in the scheme, and I think over the second half the season, I’d say that the guys have settled into that.”