You’re not dreaming. The Eagles are indeed in first place in the NFC East after Sunday’s 25-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers, even though they have a 1-2-1 record.
They’re in first place because, well, the NFC East might just be the worst division in football. Nevertheless, their win on the road against the Niners was impressive. Here are my five top reasons why they were able to beat the defending NFC champions:
The Whozat gang
The Eagles got some critical contributions from some fairly anonymous players Sunday night. Wide receiver Travis Fulgham, who was claimed off waivers from Green Bay in mid-August and was promoted from the practice squad the day before the game, caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter that put the Eagles ahead.
Fulgham beat 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson down the left sideline. Wentz threw him a perfect pass, which he caught at the 10-yard line. Fulgham somehow managed to stay in bounds even as Johnson was trying to push him out, and spun into the end zone.
Linebacker Alex Singleton, who is used mainly on special teams, was pressed into defensive service in the second half after T.J. Edwards got hurt. He picked off a Nick Mullens pass intended for Kendrick Bourne and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-score game.
Defensive end Genard Avery played just 16 snaps, but he made the most of them. His pressure on Mullens on a second-and-7 play in the red zone late in the second quarter forced a poor throw that was intercepted by safety Rodney McLeod, foiling a golden scoring opportunity for the Niners.
Avery, who played just 33 defensive snaps last year after being acquired from Cleveland at the trade deadline for a fourth-round pick, also had an important pressure on the Niners' final possession. He finished with one sack and five quarterback hits, again in just 16 snaps.
Also, Jordan Mailata played well at left tackle in his first career start. And rookie John Hightower had a 9-yard catch on a critical fourth-and-4 play to keep alive the drive on which Fulgham scored.
Sunday night clearly was Wentz’s best performance of the season. He used both his arm and legs to help beat the Niners. Had an 11-yard touchdown run and four rushing first downs. A week earlier against the Bengals, he rushed for 65 yards on nine carries and had a career-high six rushing first downs.
Wentz’s passing numbers against the Niners -- 18-for-28 for 198 yards, one TD and one INT – hardly were eye-popping. But he made several big plays, including the aforementioned 42-yard touchdown strike to Fulgham in the fourth quarter that gave the Eagles the lead for good.
He extended plays several times, including in the second quarter when he completed a 13-yard pass to Hightower. He made a nice sidearm throw to tight end Richard Rodgers on a third-and-1 play to keep alive a third-quarter scoring drive. He drilled a strike to Hightower on a pivotal fourth-and-4 play on the Eagles' go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
He smartly threw the ball away twice to avoid sacks. Wentz really only made three poor passes the entire game: his first-quarter interception, an underthrown deep ball to an open Rodgers in the first quarter, and a poor at-his-feet throw to running back Miles Sanders on a crossing route that could have gone for big yardage.
Takeaways at last
After three games without a takeaway, Jim Schwartz’s defense came up with three of them Sunday night. They converted two of those turnovers into touchdowns. The third one killed a potential Niners' scoring drive. So they were responsible for a potential 21-point scoring difference.
With the Niners at the Philadelphia 14 late in the second quarter, Avery, who had his best game as an Eagle, slipped past Niners right tackle Mike McGlinchey, hit Nick Mullens, and forced a poor throw to wide receiver Trent Taylor that was intercepted by safety Rodney McLeod.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Eagles trailing by three, cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc came on a third-and-10 blitz, blowing by left guard Daniel Brunskill and knocking the ball out of Mullens' hand with his helmet. It was recovered by Malik Jackson at the San Francisco 42, setting up the Eagles' go-ahead scoring drive.
Right after the Eagles went ahead on Wentz’s touchdown pass to Fulgham, linebacker Alex Singleton picked off Mullens' pass for Kendrick Bourne and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles an 11-point lead with 5:42 left in the game.
A different Doug
Pederson took some heat for the lack of creativity with the offense in the first three games and for his decision to punt the ball away with 13 seconds left in overtime in the Eagles' 23-23 Week 3 tie with the Bengals.
On Sunday, his play-calling was noticeably more imaginative, using bootlegs and option runs with Wentz. He even called a version of the Philly Special that had to be aborted when the Niners sniffed it out.
And he made two bold decisions in the game. The first was a successful two-point try after Wentz scored on an 11-yard run late in the first quarter. Wentz completed a pass to tight end Zach Ertz on the two-point try to put the Eagles up 8-0.
Then, he decided to go for it on a fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 36 in the fourth quarter with his team trailing, 14-11, rather than have Jake Elliott try a game-tying 54-yard field goal.
Wentz completed a nicely thrown 9-yard slant pass to Hightower on the fourth-down play. Four plays later, the Eagles QB connected with Fulgham on a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Eagles the lead.
Bringing the heat
The Eagles had another strong pass-rushing performance. A week after recording eight sacks and 29 total quarterback pressures in their 23-23 tie with the Bengals, they had five sacks and 24 pressures against the Niners.
LeBlanc forced a crucial fourth-quarter fumble when he knocked the ball out of Mullens' hand on a blitz, which swung momentum toward the Eagles and set up their go-ahead scoring drive.
Avery only played 16 snaps but had a sack and four QB hits. His second-quarter hit on Mullens in the red zone forced a poor throw that was intercepted by McLeod, snuffing out a potential Niners scoring drive.
Defensive tackle Malik Jackson had another strong game with two QB hits and four total pressures. Brandon Graham also had four pressures. Back-to-back hits by Avery and Graham on the Niners' final possession forced key incompletions just before C.J. Beathard’s unsuccessful game-ending Hail Mary into the end zone.