Prior to their hard-fought 24-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, the Philadelphia Eagles had yet to beat an opponent with a winning record in 2013. Now that they've crossed that accomplishment off the list, is it finally safe to say the Birds are for real?
On Sunday, the Eagles hung in for four quarters with the Cardinals—a team that was ahead of them in the wild-card standings, featured a white-hot starting quarterback in Carson Palmer, and a defense that entered the contest ranked among the league's stingiest. It wasn't necessarily the prettiest win, but they all count the same at season's end.
The stakes had not been this high for the Eagles since 2010. That was the last time the franchise played a game in December or later with legitimate postseason implications. Less than a year after posting an abysmal 4-12 record, the team is suddenly vying for a division championship, and they are doing it in Chip Kelly's first season on the sidelines no less.
Who said anything about a rebuilding year?
With their solid play of late, the Eagles are saying nuts to that. They'd rather go ahead and establish themselves as contenders. With strong efforts like these, they're putting the rest of the league on notice.
How's that for a takeaway?
Another week, another solid game for Nick Foles.
In his first game since officially being recognized as the Eagles’ starting quarterback, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November completed 21-of-34 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns with zero turnovers. That was all good for a passer rating of 112.0, and the win improved his record as a starter to 5-1.
Along the way, Foles set a new franchise record for pass attempts without throwing an interception. According to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, the sophomore signal-caller surpassed Michael Vick’s old mark of 223—and he is still counting.
Foles is now up to 19 touchdowns without throwing an interception this year, which is the second-longest streak to start a season behind Peyton Manning, per the Fox broadcast team.
And via Eagles media coordinator Brett Strohsacker, Foles’ rating over the last four games is 144.2. Only five players have ever posted a better stretch.
Is there any end in sight?
The numbers maybe reflect a tad more favorably on Foles than his actual performance. Foles completed just 6-of-14 pass attempts in the second half, as the Eagles managed just two first downs over their final six possessions.
Foles started the game 15-of-20, but he wasn’t quite that accurate, with his receivers bailing him out a few times. He became increasingly erratic as the game wore on, and as his confidence waned, he became indecisive with the football. Foles took five sacks, and he threw a bad interception under duress that was called back for a defensive holding penalty.
To be fair, Arizona has one of the tougher defenses in the NFL, with Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers at every level. Also, LeSean McCoy and the Birds’ running game were hit-or-miss, and DeSean Jackson was being trailed by shutdown corner Patrick Peterson for much of the game.
Regardless, Foles didn’t look very sharp. The defense will catch some flak for allowing the Cardinals to turn a 17-point deficit into a three-point deficit, but the offense’s inability to move the football over the contest’s final 20 minutes didn’t do them any favors either.
No defense has had more trouble with covering tight ends this season than Arizona, so it’s no surprise that the Eagles deployed Brent Celek and Zach Ertz immediately. The first four plays from scrimmage were all passes intended for the tight end, eventually resulting in a touchdown.
The scoring play was the first of two for Ertz, who had his best game as a professional on Sunday. The second-round pick out of Stanford finished with 68 yards and a pair of touchdowns—both career highs for the rookie.
Despite finding the end zone twice, Ertz’s most impressive reception might have been a 22-yard reception on a slant route in the first quarter. Ertz split wide as a wide receiver and made a sweet finger-tips grab with the defender in his face.
Ertz now has 26 catches for 342 yards and three touchdowns on the season. That is not bad for a kid who had only been in for half of the team’s offensive snaps on a weekly basis entering Week 13, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It was a relatively quiet day for DeSean Jackson.
Matched up with Arizona shutdown corner Patrick Peterson for much of the afternoon, the Eagles’ All-Pro wide receiver managed just three receptions for 36 yards. His most explosive play—a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown—was called back on a holding penalty.
That being said, it was still a special day for Jackson. He went over 1,000 yards receiving for the third time in his six-year NFL career, and it was the first season that he’s achieved the milestone since 2010. Rejuvenated in Chip Kelly’s offense, there’s little doubt No. 10 is in line for another trip to the Pro Bowl.
Jackson did fall off the pace of the franchise record for receiving yards (1,409) that was set by Mike Quick in 1983. The mark is not out of reach with another big day or two, however, which is the kind of performance one of the game’s most dangerous deep threats is always capable of posting.
For some reason, Chip Kelly thought it would be a good idea to break up a perfectly good drive led by Nick Foles with a Wildcat play. On 1st-and-goal from Arizona’s 6-yard line, Brad Smith took the shotgun snap, which he bobbled and had to swallow for a four-yard loss.
The Eagles settled for three points on the drive after Foles had connected on 3-of-4 passes for 63 yards to lead the Birds into scoring position.
Signed off the free-agent scrap heap just a few weeks ago, Smith is a versatile running/receiving threat with experience playing quarterback at the University of Missouri. That said, the Wildcat is a gimmick in the NFL, and it is especially unnecessary for offenses that don’t have trouble moving the football by conventional means.
During his postgame press conference (broadcast on PhiladelphiaEagles.com), Kelly insisted that it wasn’t a Wildcat play at all:
It was not a Wildcat play, it’s just Brad Smith plays quarterback, so let’s straighten that out right now. We don’t run the Wildcat, it’s just the play. He played quarterback, Nick played receiver because Brad’s really good with the ball in his hands.
Whatever he calls it, the Eagles would be better off with one quarterback taking all the snaps, like a real pro football team.
There’s one way and one way only to stop future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald: get to the quarterback.
The Eagles’ pressure packages on Carson Palmer were fierce from the opening possession, when Trent Cole came up with the first of his two sacks on the day. Underutilized outside linebacker Brandon Graham also came up with two sacks, his first since Week 3, while interior linebacker DeMeco Ryans added another to give Philly five quarterback takedowns for the game.
For Cole, the sacks were the converted linebacker’s fourth and fifth over the past four games. Ryans is now up to three in his Pro Bowl-caliber campaign, the most he’s had since he was a rookie in 2006. And although linemen Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry did not record a sack, they were in the backfield early and often as well.
Credit defensive coordinator Bill Davis for drawing up some great blitzes, making it difficult for Palmer to set his feet all day. It was great work by the front seven as well, taking advantage of a weak Cardinals offensive line.
Rookie Earl Wolff missed his second straight game with a knee injury, forcing Patrick Chung into the lineup at safety. And for the second straight game, Chung’s friendly fire led to another huge touchdown against the Eagles’ defense.
Two weeks ago against Washington, it was Chung taking out and nearly concussing Trent Cole to free up fullback Darrell Green for a 62-yard catch-and-run. On Sunday, it was Chung wiping out Brandon Boykin while failing to wrap up Fitzgerald on a 42-yard score.
Later in the game, Chung lowered the boom on Cary Williams, which finally prompted some angry body language from the cornerback.
Chung’s wasn’t just bad for his teammates’ health, he was bad for defense. The fifth-year veteran missed some tackles and probably could have been called for pass interference on at least one play. He was able to get some pressure on the quarterback, but Wolff has been capable on the blitz as well. Chung won’t be missed when he returns to the bench.
The bottom line is that the Eagles won, but they may have had just a tiny bit of aid from the officials. Seemingly questionable defensive holding calls allowed the Birds’ offense to keep possession twice when it looked like the drive was over.
First, a hold against safety Tyrann Mathieu reversed what would have been Foles’ first interception of the season. Mathieu grabbed Jason Avant’s arm as the receiver was running by, although it had little impact on the play’s outcome. Foles was under duress and floated a prayer into the middle of the field to no one in particular. Instead of Arizona getting the ball in Philadelphia territory with under four minutes in the game, the Eagles kept possession.
The Cardinals were set to receive one final possession when the refs struck again, this time getting linebacker Matt Shaughnessy for a yank on tight end James Casey’s jersey. Rather than a field-goal try and one more chance for Arizona’s offense with less than two minutes, the Eagles were allowed to kneel down three times and take the win.
The zebras tacked on a few unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for some of the reactions on the Cardinals defense. After seeing what the Eagles got away with, some might find it hard to blame them.
Chip Kelly called the last play a great call, adding that Shaughnessy “held the crap out of him.” Bruce Arians sought the council of head official Tony Corrente after the game, according to a report by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Les Bowen, but afterwards, the Cardinals head coach accepted that wasn’t the reason his team lost the game, per The Inquirer’s Zach Berman.
The Cardinals can gripe about officiating all they want, and they might even have a point, but that’s not the reason they lost. The team that wins the turnover battle wins the game roughly three-quarters of the time in the NFL, and Arizona lost big.
Carson Palmer was stripped-sacked by Trent Cole, resulting in a short field and an eventual touchdown for the Eagles in the first quarter. Nate Allen and Cary Williams each came up with an interception on poorly thrown balls as the Cards were driving.
The Eagles, meanwhile, did not commit a single giveaway. Had the Cardinals not gift-wrapped points for Philly and scored a few of their own, the outcome might’ve been different.
Over the two previous seasons combined, the Eagles finished with the NFL’s worst turnover margin, an incredible minus-40. This year, they’re among the best, as they are now up to plus-7 on the season. It’s not hard to figure out that ball security has been one of the keys behind the team’s improbable turnaround this season.
With their record improving to 7-5, the Eagles will meet Detroit next week as one of the league’s hottest teams. Nick Foles can’t make a mistake, and the defense hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points in eight games.
The Eagles’ four-game winning streak is behind only Carolina (8) and Seattle (6) for the longest ongoing streak in the NFL. The Eagles also created a new winning streak at home, which is now at two games after going more than a full calendar year without a victory in South Philly.
The 7-5 Lions will be another tough test for the Birds next week, but no opponent looks scary with this kind of momentum. The Eagles are the team nobody wants to play right now, and that’s a great feeling in the month of December.