Christmas Day

Roob's 10 observations from Eagles-Raiders

Roob's 10 observations from Eagles-Raiders


I have no idea how they won this game. But they did win this game, and the Eagles are now securely the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff bracket.

The defense forced five second-half turnovers, Jake Elliott made his second long game-winning field goal of his rookie season and the Eagles overcame a lackluster performance by Nick Foles to find their way to 13-2 with one meaningless game left against the Cowboys Sunday.

Eagles 19, Raiders 10, in a game the Eagles appeared to be on the brink of losing with a minute left (see breakdown).


Onto the playoffs!

1. All year, the Eagles have stared adversity in the face and laughed at it, and they did it again Monday night, stealing a game they had no business winning and clinching No. 1 seed in the process. Despite an offense that did virtually nothing after halftime, the Eagles somehow sent everybody home from the Linc happy after a long, cold, weird night. They did the impossible. And that's what this team is best at.

2. The Eagles' defense really showed me something down the stretch. They gave up a bunch of big plays early but made plays when they had to, forcing five turnovers in the second half, two of them deep in Eagles territory. Vinny Curry forced a Marshawn Lynch fumble, Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby picked off Derek Carr and Malcolm Jenkins forced a Jalen Richard fumble. Darby's INT led to the winning field goal — all in the span of 20 minutes. While the Eagles' offense was stalled, the defense held the Raiders to 41 yards with five turnovers on their last nine drives of the game. The offense has won a few games for this team, and Monday night, it was the defense's turn. There are still a lot of big questions facing this football team. Some will say this was an ugly win, but the standings say 13-2 and No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff bracket, and there's nothing ugly about that.

3. As well as Foles played Sunday at the Meadowlands, this was a disaster. And certainly not the sort of performance you wanted to see three weeks before the postseason opener. Foles was victimized by a couple drops, but he was largely ineffective and totally unable to get the ball down the field to his wide receivers, who combined for five catches for just 40 yards with a long gain of 12 yards. Foles needed to attack that 23rd-ranked Raiders pass defense far more aggressively than he did. Foles had guys open down the field, but either missed them or elected to throw underneath instead. What's most alarming is Foles got worse as the game went on. He was just 6 for 17 for 44 yards with no TDs and an interception in the second half — a 19.5 passer rating. He did hit a few short passes in the final moments to get into field goal range, but Foles has to be dramatically better if the Eagles have any hope of beating a playoff team. This was terrible (see report card).

4. Key point late in the second quarter was Foles throwing the ball away on 3rd-and-4 from the 15-yard line just before halftime when he had Corey Clement wide open just past the sticks. Can't afford to miss those chances. Elliott missed a short field goal, and the Eagles ended up getting nothing when they had a chance to go into the locker room with some momentum.

5. And speaking of big plays … the Eagles had 10 offensive plays of 40 yards or more in their first 11 games and just two in the last four. It's not just in the passing game that the Eagles have lost their explosiveness. The long runs we saw earlier in the year have largely evaporated as well. Something else the Eagles have to figure out in the next three weeks.

6. The Raiders had nothing to play for. They flew across the country. They had to play on Christmas far from home. A team like that, the last thing you want to do is give them a reason to play, and that's exactly what the Eagles did. During their nine-game winning streak, the Eagles jumped on people early, outscoring their nine victims 68-15 in the first quarter. Taking command early. The last month, they just haven't started out strong, and it's snowballed. They've been outscored 37-28 in the first quarter the last four games, and although they managed to come back late and beat the Rams and Giants, it's a dangerous way to operate. You hoped getting back home after three road games would solve the Eagles issues with slow starts, but it happened again Monday night, and the Eagles never recovered.

7. We don't talk enough about Robinson, but in a very young group of corners, the 30-year-old veteran has been really good this year. His interception Monday night was his team-leading fourth this year, tying his career high set with the Saints in 2011. The Eagles have historically had terrible results acquiring veteran corners — you know the names — but Robinson has been a pleasant surprise after a disastrous training camp. He's the first Eagles corner with four INTs in a season since Brandon Boykin in 2013 and the first who the Eagles acquired from another team since Asante Samuel in 2010. He's been sound in coverage and when he jumps a route, he rarely guesses wrong. And he's been a good tackler.

8. Since Darren Sproles got hurt in Week 3, the Eagles really haven't thrown to the backs very much. LeGarrette Blount isn't a receiver, and Clement has good hands and has made a few plays on third down but doesn't play enough to make a big impact in the screen game. In fact, going into Monday night's game, Wendell Smallwood — who's been inactive the last five weeks — had the most receptions of all Eagles running backs. But the last two weeks, Jay Ajayi has looked pretty sharp in the screen game. Ajayi has never been much of a receiver. He only caught 48 passes in 31 games with the Dolphins, but in the Giants game, he had a couple catches for 40 receiving yards — second-most in his career — and Monday night, he turned a screen into a 17-yard touchdown, his first career receiving TD. This offense operates so much better with a running back who can make plays as a receiver, and it's encouraging to see Ajayi show signs of becoming that guy.

9. Marshawn Lynch is not the Marshawn Lynch of old, but he sure moved the chains against the Eagles Monday night. And that just shouldn't happen. Lynch is averaging just 53 yards per game, but he hammered the Eagles for 95 yards on 25 carries, his second-most yards this year and third-most since 2014. The Eagles' run defense has been stout all year, but add it to the list of concerns going down the stretch here. That's the most rushing yards the Eagles have allowed in their last 26 games.

10. This is where I was going to ask if the Eagles have a kicker issue. After Elliott missed a 33-yarder? His third miss inside 40 yards all year? Second-most misses inside 40 yards of any NFL kicker this year? Then he bombs a game-winning 48-yarder with 22 seconds left and just like that, Elliott is once again a hero in Philadelphia. That was a tough kick in tricky wind, but he crushed it. That kid showed me a lot.

Happy holidays from Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell

Happy holidays from Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell

Well, if you had spaced on the NBA until you decided to tune into Sixers-Knicks this Christmas, you might have a very different idea of 2017 basketball than the generally accepted narrative. 

The two teams combined to shoot 14 of 44 from three-point land — the Knicks didn't even make a triple until the second half — and the game was instead won and lost down low and on the glass, with Sixers franchise everything Joel Embiid (yes, he played, thank all religious deities) battling with Knicks bigs Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis (in that order, surprisingly) for 34 extremely hard-fought minutes. The Sixers escaped with the 105-98 win — barely, but it counts — in their first Christmas game since 2001, largely thanks to the beyond-Herculean efforts of Embiid and huge work around the margins by Best Supporting Processor T.J. McConnell.

Gotta start with Joel, of course. Without our JoJo, entirely possible this thing was over by halftime -- the Sixers' offense was miserable to start, nobody else could do anything about Kanter (31 and 22!!) underneath, and the Knicks' guards essentially paraded to the rim. But some big post buckets, a major effort on the boards and a handful of absolutely sacrilegious rim denials from The Process kept The Sixers in this one, despite terrible shooting halves from Dario Saric and Robert Covington and a largely neutralized Ben Simmons. 

Embiid also paraded to the line in the third quarter, and though he seemed to run out of gas in the fourth — racking up half of his six turnovers and losing his indomitability down low — he also hit an absolutely enormous shot-clock-beating triple in the final minutes to essentially put the game out of New York's reach. His 34 minutes were definitely pushing it, and may have consequences for Embiid and the Sixers beyond this one, but no chance were they winning with Joel capped at 28. We'll find out soon enough whether it ends up being worth it, but in the meantime, you can't say enough about Jo's MVP-caliber performance this afternoon: 25 and 16 with three blocks and a matches-the-eye-test +25 for the day. Not even a typical Sixers late-game turnover-and-foul apocalypse could undo it. 

As good as Embiid was, it was pretty troubling how little support he got elsewhere. Simmons had some huge plays in transition, particularly a late steal that led to a breakaway dunk that further clinched the game for the Sixers, but he was bottled up in the halfcourt, unable to find the seams in the Knicks' defense, finishing with just eight points on eight shots. Not helping was that our floor-stretching forwards were thoroughly ineffectual, with Saric and Covington combining to shoot 1 for 10 on mostly open three-point looks, and Cov sitting for most of the fourth quarter. Of our nominal shooters, only JJ Redick — back from injury after missing both Toronto games — found his groove in this one, scoring a tremendous 24 points on just 10 shots, albeit with his usual couple of head-smacking unforced TOs down the stretch.

JoJo's most reliable wingman in this one was undoubtedly T.J. McConnell. Teej was typically maniacal in this one, pestering guards full-court, diving full-tilt towards the hoop and figuring out his gameplan seemingly on the fly, coming up with massive steals and even bigger buckets (2 of 4 from deep on open looks, which on this afternoon basically made him Steph Curry). Even the turnovers he didn't directly cause he seemed to influence with his chaos-inducing D, and it was telling that after refraining from playing him in the final minutes in most close Sixers games of late, Brett Brown finally stuck with T.J. for the long haul today. Here's hoping we don't see Jerryd Bayless over him during winning time anytime soon. 

It'd probably be misleading to call this an entirely feel-good win for the Sixers. Some of Brown's lineups remain perplexing, and why Richaun Holmes appears to be out of the rotation when he's shown far more effectiveness alongside Joel than Trevor Booker is a question not easily answered. Simmons seems increasingly compromised by defenses that don't allow him rim runs, and he'll have to continue to develop other facets of his offensive game to avoid racking up more games scoring in simple digits. And 34 minutes is just too many minutes for a game-time-decision Embiid — probably even when the game hangs in the balance. 

Nonetheless, it was a win. For the Sixers. On national TV. On Christmas. Considering how rough a December this has been for the Liberty Ballers, and how down most of us have gotten as a result, it's a necessary reality check to take stock of this moment and acknowledge that on the whole, things with this team are still generally fun and exciting and beautiful. You could tell from how pronounced the Process presence was at MSG today: Nearly home-team-loud cheers for Sixers highlights, sporadic "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants, and of course, enough "TRUST-THE-PRO-CESS!" that the Knicks fans needed to get booing to drown out. 

The team's got their work cut out for them at 15-18 to get back into the playoff hunt at this point, for sure. But if Embiid's back behaves and an effective Markelle Fultz (who teased a Christmas surprise that has still yet to materialize) re-enters the mix soon, the team should still be a factor in the East in the months to come -- and games like today's, where they secure the W playing far from their best 48, are evidence why. It's not a feel-good win, but you're still encouraged to feel good about the Sixers this Christmas. 

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers


NEW YORK — The NBA paired the Sixers and Knicks for a Christmas Day showcase and the teams delivered at Madison Square Garden.

The evenly matched opponents competed in a matchup of some of the league’s top young talent, headlined by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Kristaps Porzingis. The Sixers (15-18) prevailed with a 105-98 win over the Knicks (17-16) (see observations).

With Monday's win on Broadway, the Sixers pulled within two games of the Knicks, who currently possess the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I was so excited to play tonight because we’ve been through so much losing,” Embiid said. “To be able to be one of the few teams in the league to play on this day, it just shows you how much we’ve improved.”

The Sixers had not played on Christmas Day since 2001 against the Lakers. For a team that won 10 games just two seasons ago, the matinee selection was significant. More importantly, they broke a five-game losing streak, a skid that extended back to nine of their previous 10 contests.

“It’s huge,” Simmons said. “That’s what we definitely needed and it’s on a special day, so it was great.”

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, led the Sixers with a 25-point, 16-rebound double-double. He mixed in three blocks, adding him to the list of Anthony Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Rick Mahorn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the last seven players to record at least 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks on Christmas.

JJ Redick followed up with 24 points (4 for 8 from three) in his first game back from right hamstring tightness. The Sixers would need more than that to fend off a massive 31-point, 22-rebound effort by Enes Kanter and 22 points, seven rebounds and five blocks by Porzingis, though.

That’s where T.J. McConnell stepped in off the bench with a season high-tying 15 points. McConnell’s high-energy performance earned high praise from Sixers head coach Brett Brown.

“He was the MVP of the game,” Brown said.

Brown also credited the Sixers’ defense for the victory. They held the Knicks to 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent from three in the fourth quarter. When turnovers, which had been under control all game, crept in during the final quarter (seven of their total 13 came in the final frame), the Sixers fended off a Knicks’ late-game push and kept the lead to five or more during the final three minutes.

“We got stops when we needed to,” Embiid said. 

The Sixers head back to Philadelphia with a win to their Christmas evening celebrations. They knew they couldn't take the afternoon off if they wanted to enjoy the rest of the holiday before heading out West for three games starting Thursday in Portland prior to stopping in Denver and Phoenix.

“We were on a losing streak,” Redick said. “We realized we are at a breaking point in the season. We had to play with more urgency. Today our energy was at a different level.”