Eagles

Eagles-Rams: Roob's 10 observations

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Eagles-Rams: Roob's 10 observations

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LOS ANGELES — The sight of Carson Wentz walking off the field late in the third quarter with a towel over his head and a trainer walking next to him was enough to make any Eagles fan's heart stop and send them into shock.

He's taken over our city with such class and grace, it's hard to even remember a time when he wasn't the Eagles' quarterback. It's tough to even imagine playing without him.

But that's the reality we're facing right now. This team has been incredibly resilient all year, and they came from behind to beat a 9-3 Rams team in their own building Sunday without Wentz. With this team? You just never know.

With the dramatic 43-35 win over the Rams at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Sunday afternoon, the Eagles improved to 11-2 and clinched the NFC East (see breakdown).

So as we all await an update on Wentz, here are tonight's 10 Observations. 

1. Without immediately knowing the extent of Wentz's injury, it's tough to really speculate what this means for the Eagles. With Wentz, the Eagles are a legit Super Bowl contender. Without him? Nick Foles is certainly one of the better backups in the league and is capable of winning a couple games if Wentz is out for a few weeks or longer, especially considering the Eagles finish the regular season with the Giants at the Meadowlands and then the Raiders and Cowboys at home. But Wentz is what makes this team special, and his absence certainly changes everything. Without knowing any details, one alarming thing for me is how quickly Wentz was ruled out after he left the game. The Eagles have kept this thing rolling without Jason Peters, without Darren Sproles, without Jordan Hicks, and they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that. But if Wentz is forced to miss any appreciable time … it's just hard to imagine this team accomplishing anything special without No. 11 behind center. Wentz has been so incredibly tough over these first 29 games of his career it's hard to even fathom him getting hurt. I think of him as some sort of superhero. Invincible. Watching him walk off the field reminded me of seeing Randall Cunningham carted off the field on opening day at Lambeau Field in 1991. Some things your brain just can't process.

2. Foles? He looked rusty, which you would expect. In his first extended playing time since Nov. 6 of last year with the Chiefs, he completed a few difficult passes, engineered two fourth-quarter field goal drives, made a huge 3rd-and-8 connection with Nelson Agholor just after the two-minute warning, and generally avoided the kind of mistakes that backup quarterbacks often make. Foles is a good quarterback. He'll never be what we saw in 2013. But if Wentz does miss significant time, there aren't a lot of backups I'd rather have.

3. I was eager to see how the Eagles' defense would stack up against one of the NFL's top offenses, and for much of the game, it wasn't pretty. The Rams piled up 28 points in the game's first 46 minutes — they also scored on special teams — and Todd Gurley, despite just 13 carries, really gashed the Eagles, running for 96 yards and two touchdowns along with three catches for 39 more yards. The Eagles' tackling was terrible for much of the game, they didn't force any turnovers for 3 1/2 quarters, Jared Goff was playing efficient and productive football and hitting some big plays. Then Chris Long and Rodney McLeod made the kind of play that great defenses make. Long stripped Goff and McLeod recovered, and that set up Jake Elliott's game-winning field goal. And on the Rams' next drive, which started with 3:45 on the clock, the Rams didn't gain a yard, and then the Eagles essentially ran out the clock. It wasn't always pretty, but the Eagles went into the L.A. Coliseum and beat one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, and the defense's performance in the fourth quarter is one of the big reasons. When they had to stop the Rams, they did.

4. I really like the way LeGarrette Blount has handled this season, especially his unselfish, team-first approach after the Jay Ajayi acquisition. And Blount has really run the ball well. But I feel like we're at the point where Ajayi needs to be this team's lead running back. Doug Pederson clearly wants a rotation and doesn't want to upset the balance the Eagles have had so far. He feels like it makes the Eagles unpredictable and tougher to defend. But Ajayi just looks explosive right now, even without much work. He's only had 44 carries in the five games he's played, but among them are runs of 71, 46, 30 and 29 yards. He's averaging 7.0 yards per carry since getting here, which is nuts. He knows the offense. He knows the system. He's comfortable with this offensive line. Blount was 7 for 12 Sunday, Ajayi was 15 for 78. Ajayi has to be the guy from here on out.

5. The Rams committed three really stupid three personal fouls in the second half, the first two extending a touchdown drive. Those are penalties great teams don't commit. They're penalties the Eagles don't commit. It really kind of puts into focus how the Eagles really don't lose their cool in the face of adversity, which isn't always an easy thing to do.

6. Was nice to see a big contribution from Torrey Smith Sunday, with 6 for 100 — his first 100-yard game since 2015 and only his second since 2013. Smith has been a non-factor the last two months — just 7 for 98 in his last seven games before Sunday — but he's not the kind of guy to hang his head or demand the ball. He just kept working, and Sunday it paid off.

7. Alshon Jeffery continues to play better than his numbers. He finished 5 for 52 Sunday, but that third-quarter touchdown, where he scooped the ball off the ground just before it hit the field, was a thing of beauty and a huge play on fourth down. Jeffery doesn't have huge numbers, but he does have eight touchdowns, including six in the last six games.

8. How about some props for Trey Burton? This kid has to be the best third tight end in the history of the universe. And what a story. Undrafted out of Florida in 2014, made an immediate impact on special teams, only had three catches his first two seasons, gradually worked his way into the rotation and is now a legit target for Wentz. With Zach Ertz unable to play Sunday with lingering effects of a concussion, Burton caught four passes for 55 yards, the second-most yards of his four-year career, and had his first two-TD game. Burton had one TD in his first 50 games and has four in his last eight. The kid is big and fast, has the softest hands, rarely drops anything, and Wentz clearly loves throwing to him. Burton is due to become a free agent after the season, and the Eagles really need to find a way to keep him.

9. I know it didn’t mean anything in the big picture, but Brandon Graham deserves to get into the end zone. The way that guy plays and what he’s meant to this team over three head coaches and five defensive coordinators and six position coaches? His touchdown on the final play of the game, as the Rams fumbled trying to run some crazy length-of-the-field trick play, gave the Eagles a welcome exclamation point on a wild win. It was the first TD of Graham's eight-year career, and I know he's going to enjoy it.

10. Finally this. Whatever Wentz's injury turns out to be, allow me to put Wentz's recent run in perspective. He threw 27 touchdown passes in the Eagles' last nine games. Only six QBs in NFL history — Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and George Blanda — have ever thrown more in any nine-game span. All are Hall of Famers. Whatever happens from here on out, this is a special kid and however much time he misses, he's going to win a ton of football games for this franchise over the next decade.

Unselfish veterans key to Eagles' offensive success

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Unselfish veterans key to Eagles' offensive success

When LeGarrette Blount was a rookie with the Buccaneers back in 2010, he wanted the ball. All the time. Every snap. Most rookies do.

Didn't happen. Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olsen -- who was at the Linc last weekend with the Falcons -- made sure former 1,000-yard rusher Cadillac Williams got his touches, as well.

Blount respected Williams but wasn't crazy about the arrangement.

"Obviously, I wanted the football," Blount said of his younger self. "I felt like I was the better back, but Cadillac Williams had been a top-5 pick a few years earlier, he had been Rookie of the Year, he had an amazing career before his knee injury (in 2007).

"And Earnest Graham was one of my teammates, and he would just be like, ‘Man, be patient, wait your turn, it’ll come full circle, I promise you.’ 

"And so I waited and I was patient and my turn did come, and from then on I figured, 'OK, patience is the big key.' Don’t worry about yourself. Keep on grinding and preparing, and when your chance comes just make the best of it."

Seven years later, Blount has essentially become Earnest Graham, the wise old veteran who preaches patience and unselfishness to his younger teammates.

The Eagles don't have a 1,000-yarder rusher, they don't have a 1,000-yard receiver, but they do have 13 regular-season wins, a playoff win over the Falcons and a spot Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

They're only the fifth team in the last 30 years to play in a conference title game without a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver. And they're the first in 11 years to get this far without anybody even reaching 900 yards.

And without veteran stars like Blount and Alshon Jeffery setting the tone with their unselfish approach, this sort of balanced approach to offense just doesn't work.

“We’ve had games where I didn’t have any carries, we’ve had games where Alshon didn’t have any catches, and we’re winning, and that’s the overall goal," Blount said.

"We couldn’t care less how many catches or how many carries or how many yards any one guy has. We all have one common goal in hand. We all have one thing that we all want more than anything."

We've all seen what happens when a star receiver or running back mouths off about his role or even complains quietly in the locker room to his teammates.

It creates hostility and jealousy. It puts coaches in a tricky position. It can sway a quarterback to target players to keep them happy instead of just running the offense. And worst of all, it can influence younger impressionable players to behave the same way.

These things can all crush a team.

But when guys like Blount, a two-time Super Bowl winner who led the NFL in touchdowns last year, and Jeffery, a Pro Bowler and two-time 1,000-yard receiver, are unselfish, team-first guys, it does the opposite. The young guys always want to be like the veterans, and when those veterans are setting an unselfish tone, it has a ripple effect throughout the roster.

"Me coming in as a young guy I already had that mindset when I got here that whatever the team needs that’s what I’m going to do," rookie receiver Mack Hollins said.

"But when you see your stars doing the same thing? That's huge. If you have guys who are demanding the ball or demanding touches, whatever they’re demanding, once you start demanding stuff, that’s when everything starts to fall apart. 

"You demand stuff, the ball ends up in places it’s not supposed to be and then you stop winning games. Having older guys, your so-called stars, that aren’t worried about what they get, they’re only worried about what we get, that’s critical to our success.”

The last team to reach a conference championship game without a 1,000-yard receiver or runner was the 2006 Patriots. The last to do it in the NFC was the 2003 Eagles and that was more a lack of talent than a real sense of unselfishness. The last NFC team to reach a Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard runner or receiver was the 1996 Packers.

Guess who was a backup quarterback on that team.

Doug Pederson.

It's Pederson who has set the tone for this team's steadfast unselfishness, but it wouldn't work if guys like Jeffery and Blount didn't totally buy in.

"I didn't have to sell it too much," Pederson said. "These guys are unselfish players. They are team players No. 1, and they are great additions to our football team and they have helped us get to this position in this conference championship.

"So it's not a big sell with them. Bottom line is both those guys just want to win the game."

The win last weekend against the Falcons was typical. Six guys had between three and five catches and between 24 and 61 yards.

During the regular season, three receivers had between 789 and 824 yards. Seven others had at least 120 receiving yards. And five running backs had at least 150 rushing yards but none had 800.

It's not going to get anybody to the Pro Bowl, but it sure makes the Eagles difficult to defend.

"It's not basketball, it's football," Jeffery said. "Football, you need everybody. If a lot of players or anyone got a lot of stats besides the quarterback, I mean, I don't think your team is doing too well. I'm just being honest."

Blount had the Eagles' only 100-yard rushing game -- against the Chargers back on Oct. 1. Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz and Torrey Smith each had a 100-yard receiving game. 

Nobody had more than one.

"Sometimes you just have to put it all on the line, and you can’t be selfish when everybody has one common goal because you have to make sacrifices for the better of the team," Blount said. "We’ve done that and it’s gotten us this far." 

"There’s a lot of things that you can do that could be (selfish) but we’re a family, man. We love each other. We have each others’ back. That’s what’s gotten us this far throughout the injuries of guys and everything else."

The Eagles are one win away from riding this unselfishness, this team-first mentality, to the Super Bowl.

They face the Vikings at 6:40 p.m. Sunday at the Linc in the NFC Championship Game.

If all goes to form, they won't have a 100-yard rusher or receiver, but they'll have something a lot more meaningful.

Another win.

"This is just a pretty unselfish team all in all," Blount said. "From the O-line to the receivers to the quarterback, we have a really unselfish team at every position and that’s what you need. 

"You have guys that go out there and will do anything for a win, and if that requires them not playing as much or playing less, whatever it may be, they’re all aboard. That's why we are where we are."

Don't get hung up on Keenum, Vikings pose daunting task for Eagles

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Don't get hung up on Keenum, Vikings pose daunting task for Eagles

Eagles-Vikings
6:40 p.m. on FOX
Eagles +3

The Eagles are hoping the clock doesn’t strike midnight on their Cinderella story just as they’ve arrived at the doorstep to the Super Bowl.

Few expected the Eagles to be playing the Vikings for the NFC Championship, let alone hosting the game at Lincoln Financial Field. Few thought they would still have a shot at the big game once Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Yet, here they are, one win away from a trip to Minneapolis in two weeks.

It will take a tremendous effort to beat the Vikings, who matched the Eagles' win total in 2017 with 13, and were the No. 2 seed to the Eagles’ No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But should they manage to pull this one off, it will make for one of the most unlikely celebrations in franchise history.

Better than the Falcons in every way
Confidence is sky high after the Eagles dispatched the reigning conference champions in the divisional round, but make no mistake – the Vikings present a much bigger challenge than the Falcons.

That might seem obvious to some. After all, the Vikings won three more games this season. Yet, whether it’s because they were in the Super Bowl last year or the perception they have more star power, particularly under center, others view the Falcons as a superior foe. Put another way, many fans were hoping the Eagles would draw the Vikings in the NFC Championship.

Be careful what you wish for.

Clearly, the Vikings are much stronger defensively. With the No. 1 total and scoring defense, No. 1 third-down defense, and No. 2 run and pass defenses in the NFL, just moving the football, let alone scoring, could prove difficult for the Eagles. Minnesota limited five of its last seven opponents to 10 points or fewer.

Even offensively speaking, the Vikings are better. The vaunted Falcons offense that was so scary in 2016 finished 15th in scoring this season, and 23rd in the red zone. Minnesota ranked 10th and ninth, respectively.

Don’t underestimate the Vikings simply because they lack the name recognition of All-Pro players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Minnesota is here for a reason, just like the Eagles.

Don’t get hung up on Case Keenum
I lost count of the number of times I heard a sentence begin, “If you would’ve told me only Case Keenum stood between the Eagles and the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season.” Yeah, nobody expected it, but there’s two problems with that statement.

First of all, Keenum has played well all season. The journeyman signal caller finished second in the NFL with a 67.6 completion percentage, fourth with 1.5 interception percentage, and seventh with a 98.3 passer rating. He didn’t necessarily throw for a ton of yards or touchdowns but played efficient football while minimizing turnovers and sacks. Keenum or not, the Vikings’ offense is dangerous.

Second, and perhaps more pertinent, is the Vikings could say the same about Nick Foles. It’s not like the Eagles will be taking the field with Wentz. They’re in the exact same boat.

It’s easy to denigrate Keenum, who prior to this season had a 9-15 record as a starter. The reality is he’s playing like a viable starter, even flashed franchise quarterback potential. If you’re suggesting the Eagles’ road is easy due to who’s under center for the Vikings, you might be overlooking a decent player, not to mention the obvious comparison to Foles.

A classic formula
Speaking of Wentz, so much time has passed since he was lost for the season, one can almost forget the Eagles looked like a different team with No. 11 in the lineup. The offense was far more capable of striking quickly and scoring in bunches, racking up 30 points or more in eight of his 13 starts this season.

Since then, the Eagles have taken on somewhat of a new identity, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, they’re built on running the football and playing stingy defense, a formula that’s been delivering Super Bowl championships successfully since the big game’s inception.

The defense has been good all season, finishing fourth in total yards and scoring, but often took a back seat to Wentz’s brilliance. Likewise, the ground attack was a major aspect of the Eagles' offense all season, even if it maybe lacked the sizzle Wentz would provide on a weekly basis.

Now, as the Eagles get set to host the Vikings in the conference championship, this is very much the defense’s team, while the offense must lean on the running game. Chances are good that, win or lose, the outcome is going to come down to how the Eagles perform in those two aspects.