This is a youthful, exciting Philadelphia Eagles team. But growing pains come with the territory when you're this young, especially against experienced opponents like the New Orleans Saints. And especially in January.
As in NFL head coach Chip Kelly is still growing up.
And as in key starters, Lane Johnson and Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan and Mychal Kendricks are still growing up.
Those growing pains costs them Saturday night's Wild Card Round game against the New Orleans Saints.
In his first career playoff start, the 24-year-old Foles was shaky early and didn't consistently establish timing with his receivers until late in the third quarter. He took a couple of killer sacks that could have been avoided (one which probably cost the Eagles three points) and was flagged for intentional grounding in the second half.
Kelly put too much on Foles' shoulders early, rather than making LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing and was going up against a weak run defense, the centerpiece.
He also made two rookie-coach decisions late in the fourth quarter. Using his second timeout prior to a Saints 3rd-and-1 play with two-and-a-half minutes left was silly, and refusing to use his final timeout directly after Brees' first-down sneak was even sillier.
In fact, the Eagles couldn't stop Brees on several sneaks, even though the whole football world saw them coming. That's on the young defensive line led by Cox and Logan, who failed to rise up in their first playoff game. The Saints offensive line pushed around that young Philly DL all night, which took the heat off of Brees.
Oddly enough, one of the costliest mistakes of the night was committed by the one man on the roster with more big-game experience than anyone else: Cary Williams ripped Darren Sproles down with a horse-collar tackle prior to the Saints' game-winning drive, giving New Orleans the ball at around midfield. But in Williams' defense, Sproles appeared ready to break said return due to shoddy coverage on a shallow kick. It was again an example of a team not meeting the moment.
The Eagles had their chances. Brees threw two ugly first-half interceptions. Bradley Fletcher and DeMeco Ryans deserve credit for the plays they made, but both picks were more about New Orleans and Brees screwing up than anything else.
In the end, the Eagles couldn't execute well enough, and Philly became just the sixth team in NFL history to lose a home playoff game despite winning the turnover battle by a margin of two or more, according to NBC. Teams in that scenario are now 133-6 all time.
|Eagles: Lowest yardage totals, 2013|
|Pro Football Reference|
The Saints also lost three starters to injury during the game, including top corner Keenan Lewis, but Philadelphia couldn't take advantage.
It would have been nice for Kelly and Foles to get that first playoff victory out of the way. We all saw how much trouble Mike Smith and Matt Ryan had removing that monkey from their back in Atlanta. But this team clearly wasn't ready to take that step right now.
It was still an incredibly successful season for a team that posted a league-worst turnover margin of minus-38 in 2011 and 2012 and won just a single game beyond the month of September last season. The Eagles weren't supposed to have a winning record this year, let alone win the division, earn a No. 3 seed and nearly beat a Super Bowl-caliber opponent on Wild Card Weekend.
The Eagles set the tone this season for what should be a very bright future, but they weren't quite ready for the playoff spotlight. The loss was certainly deflating, especially coming in walk-off fashion, but it might have been a lump they had to take. It might have been a learning experience, especially for Kelly and Foles.
They'll enter 2014 as the NFC East favorites regardless. In fact, with Foles starting from day one and with Johnson, Cox, Logan, Kendricks, Zach Ertz and Brandon Boykin one year older, they'll be expected to do big things. The owner has said as much:
That'll be the next test. The Eagles exceeded expectations this season and fell short with nothing to lose. No harm, no foul. But with each passing season now, the tolerance for losses like Saturday's will shrink.
Growing pains eventually fade. The Eagles have plenty of excuses for what happened against the Saints, but they won't keep getting mulligans going forward, especially in the hypercritical football city of Philadelphia.