Everything seemed to be coming together for the Philadelphia Eagles. The team had won seven of eight under quarterback Nick Foles, and Chip Kelly led the team to a franchise record in both points scored and total yards gained.
The defense was playing at a high level, generating turnovers at key moments down the stretch, never more so than in the final minutes of a division-clinching win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.
That’s why the Eagles’ 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints was so disappointing. There’s no shame in losing to a Hall of Fame quarterback and a former Super Bowl champion coach, but Philadelphia was favored and was playing in its home stadium against a Saints team that struggles on the road.
The Eagles even managed to intercept Drew Brees twice in the first half, and Foles played his usual turnover-free game, putting up a 105.0 passer rating in the biggest game of his life. But Philly couldn’t stop Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Darren Sproles on the ground, and a handful of costly mistakes by the Eagles led to the franchise’s fourth straight playoff loss.
It will be a long offseason to review what went right and what went wrong for Philadelphia in 2013. But for now, here are five plays that really hurt the Eagles in their NFC Wild Card matchup.
5. Khiry Robinson’s 13-Yard Run
You remember the scenario. The Philadelphia Eagles had just marched down the field and scored a go-ahead touchdown via a pass from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz. The Eagles defense was protecting a narrow 24-23 lead with the New Orleans Saints possessing the ball near midfield, thanks to a costly horse-collar penalty by Cary Williams.
The Saints had run the ball effectively all game, finishing with 185 rushing yards on the ground. On the previous play, though, the Eagles had stuffed Mark Ingram for a yard, setting up a 2nd-and-11 at midfield. This was a golden opportunity for Philly to keep the Saints from getting a first down and get the ball back.
The Saints lined up with two tight ends to the right, Marques Colston split out wide and Robert Meachem in motion. Undrafted rookie free agent Khiry Robinson was in the backfield, with the Eagles in their standard 3-4 defense.
Brees took the snap and handed off to Robinson. Robinson’s first step was to the right, but he cut to the left immediately. The Eagles had Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox up against Ben Grubbs, Brian De La Puente and Zach Strief in the trenches. Right guard Jahri Evans got to the second level immediately and put a well-placed block on inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
As evidenced by the picture above, Cary Williams probably had the best opportunity to make a tackle, although Kendricks was in good pursuit too.
The result, though, was Robinson breaking through both the grasp of Williams and Kendricks. In fact, Robinson was still on his feet past the first-down marker, and it took pretty much a team of Eagles defenders to bring him down.
That 13-yard run gave the Saints a first-down marker at the Philadelphia 36, and with 3:25 left, the Saints were near field-goal range already. That play won’t be remembered as one of the worst of the day, but it really put a nail in the Eagles’ coffin.
4. Cary Williams’ Horse-Collar Penalty
A couple of plays before Khiry Robinson’s run, the Philadelphia Eagles’ poor special teams coverage units once again got beat. To be fair, the Eagles were near the middle of the pack in average yards allowed per kick return (23.6) and punt return average (8.0) for the season.
But they got burned badly by Jeremy Ross in the Snow Bowl game (a kick and punt return touchdown), and as a result, special teams coach Dave Fipp short-kicked to Cordarrelle Patterson all game the following week.
On this one, the Eagles had just taken a 24-23 lead and were kicking off to the New Orleans Saints with under five minutes to play. Alex Henery’s kickoff traveled a respectable 67 yards, with Darren Sproles catching the ball two yards deep in the end zone.
A big block on No. 30 Colt Anderson near the 20 helped spring Sproles, and Sproles cut to the right with open grass in front of him with which to run.
This put cornerback Cary Williams in hot pursuit of Sproles, but Sproles took a good angle and kept running to the outside.
With Sproles likely to break free of Williams and possibly go the distance, Williams did the only thing he could do and grabbed Sproles by the back of his shoulder pads. That’s a horse-collar penalty, and it added 15 yards to the end of the run, putting New Orleans in great field position.
To be fair, Williams probably saved a touchdown, but it is more of an indictment on the poor play from the Eagles’ special teams units all season. Philly really struggled down the stretch trying to stop first Ross, then Patterson and then Sproles, and it shouldn’t have taken a cheap penalty to prevent a go-ahead touchdown.
3. Nick Foles Takes a Sack
Nick Foles played a pretty good game for the Philadelphia Eagles, leading the offense to 24 points and throwing two touchdowns with no interceptions. And he seems to have a tremendous ability to hold the football and take a sack, rather than force a throw and get picked off.
But there are times when a quarterback needs the ability to throw the ball away, and Foles didn’t do it here.
The Eagles had the ball at the New Orleans Saints’ 23 with just 14 seconds left in the first quarter. The score was knotted at 0-0, and the Eagles were facing a 2nd-and-18.
Foles took the snap and had excellent protection. In fact, the line was so good that Foles just held the ball, waiting for someone to get open.
The problem was that no one got over, and Cameron Jordan eventually wrapped up Foles at the 34-yard line.
It was just a brutal decision by Foles to hold on to the ball and take a sack. One has to wonder how long Foles would have held the ball. Would he have held it for 12, 13 seconds? The play was timed at 7.45 seconds. That’s almost as long as you will ever see a team protect its quarterback without the quarterback scrambling around.
Here’s an image of Foles’ view when he was scanning the field for open receivers.
There really was no one. A dump-off to McCoy (on the left) wouldn’t have done anything. Ertz and Cooper were both covered deep. And neither Avant nor Jackson was open. But that’s a time when Foles needs to be smart enough to simply throw the ball away out of the end zone. Or anywhere.
2. Alex Henery’s Missed Field Goal
Following Nick Foles’ willingness to hold the ball and take a sack, the Philadelphia Eagles were out of field-goal territory. A four-yard run by LeSean McCoy brought the team a little closer, setting up a 48-yard field goal for kicker Alex Henery.
That’s a long field goal, but it’s makeable. Any NFL kicker should be able to make that kick when the game is on the line. The problem is that Henery isn’t any NFL kicker. He’s a below-average one at that, and he hasn’t yet demonstrated that he has NFL-caliber leg strength.
He has just two career makes from beyond 50 yards. So many times this season, the Eagles didn’t even let Foles attempt a long field goal.
For this one, Henery’s kick wasn’t even close. Not even close.
The moment the ball was kicked, it looked off. Henery probably would have missed from 40 yards.
This gave the Saints the ball at their own 37, and Drew Brees drove New Orleans down the field for a 36-yard field goal. Consider that the Saints’ drive stalled at the Philadelphia 19. If the Eagles had converted their field goal and kicked off, New Orleans likely would have started its drive about 12 yards back. All of a sudden, that’s a 48-yard field goal.
That’s no guarantee with a brand-new kicker. The point is Henery’s kick really cost the Eagles, especially with them losing by two points. There's not an Eagles fan alive that has confidence in Henery on a long field goal, and it's time the team brings in some serious kicking competition for next year.
1. Riley Cooper’s Dropped Pass
You won’t find too many dropped passes worse than this one.
Riley Cooper had put together a miraculous season following the off-the-field fiasco that began his 2013 season. He had developed into a quality No. 2 receiver and emerged as a downfield threat for the Philadelphia Eagles.
In this situation, the Eagles faced a key 3rd-and-4 at their own 30, down 13-7 midway through the third quarter.
Philly lined up with Jason Avant and Cooper on the left, Zach Ertz as the tight end next to right tackle Lane Johnson and DeSean Jackson split out wide at the top of your screen.
Jackson ran a deep fly, and Ertz cut to the left of the field. That left Cooper completely uncovered in the middle of the field. Nick Foles hit Cooper in stride, and Cooper had no one near him.
Seriously, just look at that. Cooper catches that in his sleep 999 times out of 1,000.
Cooper would have gained a minimum of 25 yards. If Jackson had picked up a block on corner Keenan Lewis, Cooper may have gone 50 or more yards. That’s the kind of play that can easily turn a game.
And Cooper dropped the ball. Quite literally, dropped the ball.
That’s the kind of drop that will haunt Eagles fans for years, and it will go down in Philadelphia playoff history with infamous plays like Scott Young’s false start, Joe Jurevicius’ 71-yard reception, Ronde Barber’s pick-six or Tim Hightower’s touchdown.