This time last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were wrapping up a pathetic 4-12 campaign that it was widely believed would usher in a lengthy rebuilding process. One season later, the Birds are knocking off the Dallas Cowboys 24-22 in Arlington, Texas to be crowned NFC East champions.
The new era of Eagles football is well underway with head coach Chip Kelly, who took the club from worst to first in his first season on the sideline. With a 10-6 record and winners of seven of its last eight, Philadelphia is back in the playoffs for the first time in three years—no rebuilding necessary.
Under Kelly, the Eagles finished 2013 with the NFL’s second-ranked offense, while the defense held 13 of 16 opponents to 22 points or less, giving the team a chance to win every week. You couldn’t have asked for much more than that.
Beating Dallas for the division title was the cherry on top. After the hard-fought road victory, Kelly took to the podium and talked to reporters about what an amazing journey this has season has been for the franchise. Via Dan Klausner for PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
I told those guys the first time I met them that I thought this is a special group,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “I can’t tell you how much they’ve made this transition for me coming from college to the pros. It’s those guys. Everything we asked them to do as a staff, from the first day we got there on April 1 until tonight, they bought in. It’s an awesome feeling when you can work as hard as they’ve worked and see it pay off.
The Eagles will quickly turn their attention to their upcoming playoff opponent, the New Orleans Saints. This was a game that’s truly worth reliving though, so let’s experience the highs and lows and the highs again in this week’s edition of Takeaways.
You gotta love this team’s resilience.
Early in the game, Brandon Boykin was beaten on a 39-yard pass down the seam to Cowboys slot receiver Terrance Williams. Later, the second-year cornerback was called for a dumb and completely unnecessary fair-catch interference penalty.
That’s all forgiven now of course. With Philadelphia leading by just two and the Cowboys trying to mount one final drive, Boykin would go on to intercept Kyle Orton’s pass intended for Miles Austin and take a knee to end the threat—and the game.
Boykin snared the errant throw behind Austin with under two minutes remaining, and the Eagles needed just one first down from there to put the Cowboys away. It was Boykin’s sixth interception of the season, extending his lead on the team. That total also ties him for second in the NFL with Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy and New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle.
Not bad for a 23-year-old kid who plays roughly 50 percent of the Eagles’ snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription only).
Just minutes before the game kicked off, Derrick Gunn for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia Tweeted out that Mychal Kendricks meant business. The second-year interior linebacker told Gunn, “I’m here to make a difference and you can quote me on that.”
Strong words. He backed them up.
Kendricks came out and stripped running back DeMarco Murray on the first series of the game, stopping a Cowboys drive that was already into Philadelphia territory. Then in the second quarter, he came up big again, intercepting a pass that bounced off tight end Jason Witten’s hands to stall yet another promising possession.
The Eagles turned those takeaways into 10 points, creating a massive swing on the scoreboard. That would be anybody’s definition of making an impact.
Kendricks was everywhere, finishing the game with a team-high 12 tackles. He missed a few too, and Witten gave him some problems in coverage, but Kendricks came up huge in what was arguably the best game of his young career.
It’s really no surprise the Eagles are where they are now when we look at one key statistic: turnovers. The Eagles plus-11 turnover margin is tied with the Carolina Panthers for the fifth-best mark in the NFL this year.
Over the last eight games, during which the Birds were 7-1, their turnover margin is an even better plus-13.
No stat besides points correlates more with winning than giveaways. Teams that win the turnover battle win roughly three-quarters of the time, and here we are.
LeSean McCoy put the Eagles on his back when it mattered most. Ahead by only one in the fourth quarter, Chip Kelly finally decided to lean on his Most Valuable Player.
Chip called nine running plays to two passes on Philly’s opening possession, methodically marching the ball down the field until Bryce Brown punched the ball in from six yards out. McCoy carried seven times on that series, though, and while it was only for 24 yards, twice it was enough to move the chains.
Shady finished with 131 yards on 27 attempts (4.9 yards per carry), plus he scored on a three-yard TD reception. He set a new Eagles franchise record for rushing yards in a season with 1,607, which was also more than enough to finish as the NFL’s rushing champion. His 2,148 yards from scrimmage also tops the league's leaderboard.
McCoy already owns the Eagles’ record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 17.
Nick Foles has had a tremendous season, and his success has a lot to do with the club’s run this season. However, when it’s crunch time, the player people want to see with the ball in his hands is No. 25. He’s the best player on the team, and a worthy MVP candidate.
Even when Nick Foles struggles somewhat, it’s nothing like what most normal quarterbacks go through. After all, he just completed a season in which he threw 27 touchdowns to two interceptions, the best ratio in NFL history according to ESPN’s Adam Caplan.
That said, things don’t always go so swimmingly for the second-year pro. Foles completed 12 of 16 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Dallas, but half No. 2 was a far different story.
Foles hit on just 5-of-10 for 66 yards, had zero touchdowns and was sacked three times down the stretch, fumbling the ball away in one instance. The Eagles came away with points on just one of their seven second-half possessions, the lone exception being when Chip Kelly decided to hand the ball off on nine of 11 plays.
That being said, Foles simply continues to get the job done. He keeps turnovers to a minimum, and even when things aren’t exactly clicking, usually hits just enough big plays to prevent the offense from falling apart.
Usually, we only talk about these guys when they’ve done something wrong, but the offensive linemen truly are the unsung heroes of this team. They paved the way for LeSean McCoy’s record-breaking season. They keep Nick Foles upright more often than not.
You might say the group has been the biggest difference between this year and last—I would. The Eagles never could replace Jason Peters last year after he was lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans followed suit with injuries of their own.
This year, all five players who make up Philadelphia's offensive line started all 16 games. That right there cannot be overstated, nor should it go overlooked. It’s a huge reason for the franchise’s success in 2013, if not the biggest.
There were quite a few moments where this game almost came off the rails for the Eagles.
1. Nick Foles became a little gun shy, particularly in the second half. On the Birds’ second possession, Foles couldn’t find anywhere to go with the ball, and a Cowboys defensive tackle wound up stripping the football. Dallas recovered at the Philadelphia 20-yard line but went three-and-out and had to settle for a field goal that brought them within one.
A touchdown there may have been a momentum swing the Eagles weren’t going to overcome.
2. The Eagles had just made it an eight-point game after LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown rammed it down the Cowboys’ throats, but Kyle Orton wasn’t done yet.
On a desperate 4th-and-9 call with less than four minutes remaining in the contest, Dez Bryant somehow got matched up one-on-one with safety Patrick Chung. The wide receiver took an easy slant pattern for the first down, then broke Chung’s lackluster tackle attempt to take Orton’s pass 32 yards to the house.
Dallas had to go for two to tie the score, but Cary Williams broke up the pass intended for Bryant. Otherwise, a tie game there changes things, and who knows what kind of finish we get.
What good is beating the Cowboys without a little schadenfreude?
Tony Romo couldn’t suit up due to a back injury, but the result was the same. Romo’s understudy Kyle Orton filled the role beautifully, heaving an interception in the closing minutes just like good ol' No. 9 historically does.
I’m sure he would have if he could have.
Dallas has won just one playoff game over the past 17 seasons, and this was the Cowboys' third straight year at 8-8 and missing the postseason.
Any win over the Cowboys is a good win, so celebrate that for a day or two. Don’t lose sight of the goal, though.
Philadelphia makes its triumphant return to the postseason for the first time in three years this Saturday night against the New Orleans Saints. And by virtue of winning the division, that’s a home game in prime time, by the way.
Lincoln Financial Field should be rocking.
After going over a full calendar year without winning a game in their own yard, the Eagles are winners of four straight at home. Oh, and for whatever this is worth, Jeff McLane for The Philadelphia Inquirer tells us Saints quarterback Drew Brees is 0-4 at outdoor venues during the playoffs.
Win or lose, this has already been an amazing season for the Birds. They’ve gone further than most people expected.
Nuts to all that right now, though—nobody is ready for this ride to end.