How does a quarterback complete three-quarters of his passes and lose?
When that quarterback is Mark Sanchez, and his team desperately needs to win.
Since seeing the Eagles through to a 31-21 win over the Houston Texans in Week 9, Sanchez has played unevenly but creditably. When he led the Eagles to a 33-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, it looked like Sanchez had conquered his demons—and the Eagles were on their way to conquering the NFC.
Since then, the Eagles are 0-3. Being bottled up by the Seattle Seahawks wasn't a surprise. Getting outgunned by Tony Romo and the Cowboys in the Week 15 rematch wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Letting Washington, previously 3-11, break its six-game losing streak against them was something the Eagles could not afford to do.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Sanchez did about as well as he could do in Saturday's 27-24 loss.
LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles held up their end of the deal, averaging 4.3 yards gained on their 26 carries:
A few critical Eagles mistakes—including some untimely penalties and two missed field goals—wouldn't have cost them the game if Sanchez had been able to make a big play or two, or avoid the big mistake.
Instead, he nibbled his way down the field. He completed a drive or two and left a few others unfinished. He lost a fumble and threw a pick, and he picked up a few extra yards on the ground. For all of the Eagles' talent, and all of head coach Chip Kelly's genius, they needed more from their quarterback than Sanchez could give.
Per Howard Eskin of Fox 29 TV in Philadelphia, Nick Foles' collarbone will keep him out at least the rest of the regular season:
Now, the Eagles will watch helplessly as the Cowboys host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. If the Cowboys can defend their home turf (they're 3-4 at home this season), they'll clinch the NFC East—and eliminate the Eagles in the process.
Sanchez completed 74 percent of his whopping 50 passes. He averaged a healthy 7.5 yards per attempt for a total of 374 yards. He even threw two touchdown passes—both red-zone strikes to receiver Riley Cooper.
Tight end Zach Ertz was the biggest beneficiary of Sanchez's prolific evening. He caught 15 passes for 115 yards, both career highs. In fact, per Pro Football Reference, Ertz had never even cracked double digits in targets before, let alone receptions. Sproles, McCoy and tight end Brent Celek combined for 10 more catches; that leaves just 12 receptions for the Eagles' top three receivers.
Here we have the problem: Sanchez threw 50 passes and only 12 of them went to wide receivers. Against a notoriously weak Washington secondary—dead last, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in pass coverage performance—Sanchez couldn't push the ball downfield.
One suspects Kelly decided to tailor the game plan that way. Coming into it, Sanchez had thrown three interceptions in just 48 attempts over the prior two weeks. A 6.8 percent interception rate is too high for any offense to overcome. Given the choice between death by interception and death by a thousand cuts, Kelly and the Eagles opted for the latter.
Sanchez found other ways to kill drives. There was the opening-drive sack-fumble, a sack on 3rd-and-4 at the start of the second quarter and a missed 3rd-and-11 connection with Sproles that kept Philly from scoring at the end of the first half.
Of course, other Eagles made mistakes.
Cornerback Cary Williams committed an inexcusable unnecessary roughness penalty on a failed 3rd-and-9, and Washington's extended drive led to a field goal. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher got roasted by former Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson for two 50-plus-yard receptions.
After the game, per Washington's official Twitter account, Jackson had some choice words for the team that cut him loose in the offseason.
"I'm just happy to be on this side," Jackson said, "and send them home with a loss."
Then, there was Cody Parkey. After the Eagles recovered Washington's fumble of the second-half kickoff, Parkey missed a 34-yard field goal that would have widened the Eagles' lead to 17-10. He shanked a 46-yarder on the Eagles' next possession, setting up Washington's second touchdown. What would have been a 20-13 lead became a 24-14 deficit.
Sanchez led his second touchdown drive in response, and then safety Nate Allen made the one big play the Eagles defense has been consistently coming up with all season: an interception of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III on his third deep bomb to Jackson.
Once again the Eagles drove into the red zone, and once again they couldn't close. A field goal tied it, but the Eagles needed a touchdown. After a quick stop put the ball in Sanchez's hands, he ended the game—and possibly, the Eagles' season—the only way the narrative would allow: with an interception.
Even if the Cowboys trip up on Sunday, Week 17 would need to see the Eagles beat the New York Giants on the road and the Cowboys lose at Washington. It's highly unlikely all those stars align. Per FiveThirtyEight.com, this loss dropped the Eagles' playoff odds from 39.6 percent to just 7.9 percent.
If Sanchez could have made just one big play, things might have been different. Instead, the Eagles go into the offseason with one quarterback who might not be good enough—and another who definitely isn't.