ATLANTA – The road to championships in the NFL begins quite literally on the road. Good teams can pile up wins in their home stadiums. Great ones have the ability to go into hostile environments and still emerge with a victory.
Which team the Eagles will ultimately be this season is unknown, but Sunday night’s 24-20 gut-punch loss in Atlanta started them off on the wrong foot. It was a disjointed game, mottled by injuries that sapped the Eagles offense, and while they hung around and came back to take a late lead, they were victimized in the end by a Matt Ryan pick-play touchdown pass to Julio Jones that ruined the evening.
There was even a last-last-gasp drive that ended up only inches short as Zach Ertz failed to get a first down marking on a fourth-down pass deep in Atlanta territory with less than a minute to play. Oh, well. Momma said there would be nights like this, but she didn’t mention half the team would be in the blue tent of medical diagnosis before it was over.
“Love the way these guys fought...battled right until the end. It was in our hands to win the game at the end and we came up short. It stings, losses like this, and it’s going to make us better moving forward,” head coach Doug Pederson said.
It was a flat evening for much of the going, but the Eagles didn’t merely accept the situation and shift their focus from the field to the waiting charter jet. They came back from a two-score deficit early in the second half and kept grinding and waiting for Atlanta to give them back the game, which the Falcons are well capable of doing.
It nearly happened, with help from Ryan, who threw three interceptions in the space of four drives to keep the Eagles in the picture.
In the end, the Falcons were just one drive better, and maybe nothing more should be made of the outcome. It is just one loss in a long season, only that, but losses on the road are tough for teams looking to pad their record for postseason seeding.
The difference between 2017 and 2018 for the Eagles is a handy reference. The Eagles were able to play consistently throughout the schedule in 2017 and earn the top seed in the conference and home-field advantage through the postseason. Last year, they limped to a 4-4 road record, needed to win their last three games to qualify for the playoffs, then survived one road postseason game but couldn’t get through the next.
Winning on the road in the regular season means you are less likely to have to win on the road in the playoffs. It’s no coincidence that the only three times the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl, they had a combined 19-5 road record in those seasons.
In the last 20 years, the Super Bowl participants averaged 5.8 wins per season on the road. Of the 80 teams over that span that got as far as the conference championship round, only four had finished with a below-.500 record on the road in the regular season.
Those are not coincidental numbers and the Eagles were unable Sunday night to build any momentum off their season-opening win over Washington. Now they have to regroup and start over, perhaps with some pieces missing.
The toughest road games for the Eagles this season are front-loaded into the schedule. The first four road opponents – Atlanta, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Dallas – were a combined 21-10-1 at home last season. The next four – Baltimore, Miami, Washington, and the New York Giants – were a combined 17-15.
That means that by Week 7, after the Eagles play a Sunday night game against the Cowboys on Oct. 20, we’ll know whether they have constructed an easy path to the postseason or one that history tells us will be much more difficult.
Sunday night in gleaming, raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Eagles dug themselves a familiar hole by falling behind, 10-3, in the first half before a field goal at the whistle brought them back to within 10-6.
Pederson talks about the importance of getting off to a fast start and taking control of a game, particularly on the road to eliminate the crowd, but the Eagles continued to struggle with that Sunday night, as they have for a full year.
After being held scoreless in the first quarter against the Falcons, the Eagles have now been shut out in the opening quarters of 12 of their last 18 regular-season games. On the road last season, they were held scoreless in the first quarter of five games and compiled a 1-4 record in those games. Not a chore to recognize the problem, but solving it was another matter.
The Eagles kept losing players Sunday night and that kept them from developing a rhythm. Carson Went took shots to the ribs and the head, and had to duck into the tent briefly for the concussion protocol. Before the game was over, also going down with injury or missing plays or visiting the blue tent for observation, were DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jason Kelce, Dallas Goedert, Sidney Jones, Nelson Agholor, Jason Peters, and Tim Jernigan. Most nights there isn’t that much observation at the Fels Planetarium.
Still, they hung in and trailed by only five points midway through the final quarter when Wentz drove them to a go-ahead touchdown hinged on an amazing third-down completion to Mack Hollins despite the fact the quarterback was wrapped up by Atlanta defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. on the play. When Wentz finished the drive with a sneak, he nearly fell down spiking the ball, but the emotion was understandable. The Eagles had the game in their hands...until they didn’t.
It slipped away – as did a potential touchdown reception by Agholor on the final drive – and that happens sometimes on the road, even to good teams. For teams that want to be great, however, it had better not happen too often.