They can’t just make it easy. They can’t just jump on a bad team early and put ‘em away. Drives ya crazy!
But the Eagles once again found a way to overcome a slow start, they beat Washington for the second time in 13 days – after trailing both games by 10 points – and put themselves on the doorstep of the playoffs with a 20-16 win at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
A ferocious second-half defense carried the Eagles to their fourth straight win Sunday, and all it takes now for them to officially be a playoff team is a Packers win over the Vikings at Lambeau Field Sunday night along with either a 49ers win over the Texans or a Panthers win over the Saints later this afternoon.
Here’s our 10 Instant Observations from an agonizing but ultimately successful Sunday afternoon.
1. Let’s forget for a second just how ugly that win was. And it was. We’ll get to that. But for this team to get to 9-7, clinch a winning season and find itself on the doorstep of the playoffs in its first year under a new coach after a 2-5 start is truly remarkable. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, there have been 191 teams that started out 2-5 and the Eagles are only the 14th to have a winning record. I don’t know how good this team is, but I know they have a hell of a lot of character, a hell of a lot of resilience and a hell of a lot of grit in the face of adversity. They did not play well for long stretches of this game. The defense was terrible early. The offense was inconsistent. But they made the plays they had to make, and really that’s what they’ve been doing the second half of the year.
2. As bad as the defense was in the first half, and it was wretched, they really got their act together in the second half. First half, Washington netted 231 yards and scored 16 points. Second half, Washington netted 81 yards and didn’t score a point. The difference was pressure. The second half of this game was really the first time in a long time the Eagles generated consistent pressure from their defensive front. Taylor Heinicke had his way in the first half, completing 14 of 17 passes for 170 yards, but in the second half he was 13 of 19 but for only 77 yards and was sacked twice. This d-line has underachieved all year, but when the Eagles needed them the most they came up huge.
3. Two straight weeks with a huge interception for the trusty old veteran Rodney McLeod. His INT early in the third quarter against the Giants last week really turned the momentum in that game, and this one was a massive play, a crazy athletic diving catch in the end zone with 24 seconds left in the game. McLeod is such a pro. He’s had his playing time reduced dramatically over the last month or so, and he’s responded not by whining or crying or complaining, but by continuing to be prepared every single snap that he’s on the field, and it’s paid off two weeks in a row. Total pro.
4. This wasn’t a huge statistical performance by Jalen Hurts, but he was solid. Completed 65 percent of his passes, no turnovers, no big mistakes, threw for 214 yards and with that ankle injury continuing to heal, he made plays with his legs for the first time in a while, rushing seven times for 44 yards. Nothing came easy for the Eagles Sunday, and when that happens it’s easy to panic and get away from the game plan, and that’s when games slip away. No matter what’s happening around him, Hurts just stays calm and does his job and doesn’t try to do too much. He just plays. He was under a lot of pressure Sunday, and I thought he made a lot of really nice throws on the move as well.
5. OK, let’s get this out of the way. This is five straight weeks now the Eagles have started off a game poorly, and they’re really making life difficult for themselves. First Giants game, they trailed 3-0 after the first quarter. Jets they trailed 12-7. First Washington game 10-0. Second Giants game was scoreless. And this time they trailed 10-0. The last time the Eagles played a solid first quarter on both sides of the ball was the Saints, and that was six games ago. In their last five games they’ve been outscored 35-7 in the first quarter, only to bounce back and outscored their opponents 114-39 the rest of the game. Think about that. It’s easy to blame the coaches for not getting guys ready, but just as much blame goes to these players, who need to be accountable as well. They have to be better out the gate.
6. Josh Sweat has been getting very good pressure for five or six weeks now and he’s finally finishing some of those pressures. Took a while. But Sweat had 1 ½ sacks Sunday in Washington, including a big one to force a punt on Washington’s first second-half drive. Sweat had 3 ½ sacks the first 12 games but has 4.0 now in the last four games, giving him a career-high 7 ½. But it wasn’t just the sacks. He had consistently strong pressure throughout the second half Sunday and finished with two pass deflections, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and five tackles along with his 1 ½ sacks. If Sweat could ever play at this level consistently he’d be a Pro Bowler. Monster performance.
7. I love Boston Scott at the goal-line. Scott is virtually unstoppable in the low red zone. Over the last three years, he’s gotten 16 carries from the 5-yard-line and in and scored 11 touchdowns – two more Sunday - which means he’s scoring 69 percent of the time. The only players with a higher percentage of TDs on 10 carries or more inside the 5 are two quarterbacks - Ryan Tannehill (13-for-14, 93 percent) and Jacoby Brissett (8-for-11, 73 percent). Scott is one of the best short-yardage and goal-line backs in the league, and he proves it every time he gets a chance. Scott netted 86 yards Sunday, and the Eagles needed every single one.
8. It was awesome seeing Greg Ward come out of mothballs and make some big plays Sunday. After catching 53 balls last year, Ward had caught only four passes this year. But when the Eagles needed him, he answered the bell with a couple catches for 35 yards, including a huge 27-yarder down to the 4-yard-line in the third quarter – the 4th-longest catch of his career - to set up a touchdown. Ward had just played 47 snaps in his last seven games. But when the Eagles needed him, he produced. You have to love a guy who doesn’t get to play much all year but when his number is dialed up, he comes up huge. Same goes for Boston Scott.
9. I like the fact that even though the Eagles weren’t piling up huge numbers running the ball, Nick Sirianni stuck with the run throughout the game and even without Miles Sanders never stopped hammering the ball. I just think that gives this offensive line a chance to be physical and wear down an opponent. As ugly as this game was, it’s encouraging that the Eagles could win a game on the road when their No. 1 weapon – the running attack – wasn’t really operating at full efficiency. To be a good team, you’ve got to be able to win in different ways, and this was only the second time this year the Eagles won a game without rushing for at least 130 yards. That’s big.
10. Don’t look now, but since Nick Sirianni’s speech to his players after the Raiders game about unseen growth that will eventually pay off if you stick to your principles – the metaphor of the plant – the Eagles are 7-2. Think about that. Maybe you thought it was a silly way to express his feelings, but his team totally bought in. Totally. They’re one of the best teams in the NFL since that speech. Sirianni has done a remarkable job this year of keeping this team together through ugly losses, through losing streaks, through embarrassing performances on both sides of the ball, and look where they are now. You can criticize his play calling early in the season, you can laugh at his opening press conference if you want. But Sirianni won over these players and turned a four-win last-place laughing stock into a likely playoff team in one year. The five-win one-year improvement – from four to nine – is the 3rd-largest in franchise history. Incredible job this year by the rookie coach.