Malcolm Jenkins and Rasul Douglas threw their drowning teammates a lifeline, untied them from the railroad tracks, pulled them back from the edge of the cliff.
The other Eagles then tossed away the lifeline, jumped in front of the oncoming train, and hurled themselves over the cliff.
The Eagles refused to be saved from their repeated mistakes Sunday, losing to the visiting Detroit Lions, 27-24, even after their 31-year-old defensive leader blocked a Matt Prater field goal, the ball recovered by Douglas, setting Carson Wentz up at midfield with a minute, 39 seconds left.
The wounded, 1-2 Eagles now go to 3-0 Green Bay and inhospitable Lambeau Field on Thursday night, looking at the strong possibility of a 1-3 September, their Super Bowl aspirations close to fading into a bad joke.
And yet, after Jenkins and Douglas set them up Sunday, an improbable victory was sitting right there, for a team that had fumbled the ball away twice, dropped a sure touchdown pass, and allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. All this while not sacking or really touching Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford, or forcing any Detroit turnovers.
First down, Wentz went to his most reliable target, tight end Zach Ertz, on a short throw to the left. Ertz, covered closely by Detroit safety Tracy Walker, couldn’t make the catch.
Second down, Wentz went over the middle to Mack Hollins. No chance there, either.
On third-and-10, Wentz went short to Nelson Agholor, looking to make fourth down less foreboding. Agholor made the catch, fourth-and 5 from the Detroit 45.
Wentz then found 36-year-old running back Darren Sproles at the sideline inside the 20 for a first down, but Sproles was ruled to have pushed off, the third offensive pass interference call against the Eagles on the afternoon.
On fourth-and-15, with defensive end Romeo Okwara clawing at his arm, Wentz fired his final shot. It was a long heave down the middle to rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, whose NFL career so far includes two catches for 14 yards. The ball glanced off the heels of Arcega-Whiteside’s hands, at the Lions’ 3, the rookie screened by corner Rashaan Melvin, and that was that.
“He was the third option on that play, and I just tried to give him a good shot,” Wentz said after going 19-for-36 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. “I wish I would’ve gotten the ball out there a little farther. We just didn’t make the play.”
Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round pick, was disappointed in his inability to deliver the big moment. That final heave was only the third time he was targeted Sunday.
“It’s tough. It’s the moment you ask for and dream about. Got to make the play,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “I got to go get it. It was tight coverage. I was going to elevate, expecting some contact, really wasn’t [any] contact. Then the ball just ended up right there. Have to make the play.”
The Eagles needed maybe 20 yards on their final series to give Jake Elliott a reasonable chance at a game-tying field goal. With wide receivers Alshon Jeffery (calf) and DeSean Jackson (abdomen) out of the lineup Sunday, they weren’t capable of giving Elliott that chance. In fact, they finished five yards behind where they started.
“We go out there and we play two teams, the Lions and ourselves,” right tackle Lane Johnson said.
“I thought we had the game won, but we didn’t win it,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “That’s the most important part.”
Cox’s slow recovery from the foot injury suffered at the end of last season is a factor in these early- season struggles, and he knows it. With defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Tim Jernigan on injured reserve, the Eagles need Cox to be dominant, more than ever. Right now he can’t fight his way through double-teams.
“We’re not getting to the quarterback – especially me,” Cox said. “I’m not getting there quick enough.”
The Eagles have trailed by double digits in all three games they’ve played, which is not an effective way to contend for a championship.
“This is not a defining moment for our season at all,” said coach Doug Pederson. “Again, only three games in. We have to get some things fixed. We know that.”
Asked what he would do to keep Wentz from getting discouraged – the lackluster receivers group tallied at least a half-dozen drops, and Wentz was sacked three times as he waited for someone to work his way open – Pederson said, “Just keep battling, fighting. Go to work tomorrow. Short week. We have a lot of confidence in the players. We just have to keep working.”
Ertz, double-teamed and held to four catches for 64 yards, said: “We have spurts of good football and then spurts of terrible football. A lot of the time, it’s self-inflicted. The turnovers and penalties today were obviously killers.”
With Ertz drawing so much attention, Agholor and rookie running back Miles Sanders were the Eagles’ most dynamic remaining weapons. Agholor fumbled the ball away, leading to a second-quarter Lions field goal, the series after Sanders fumbled the ball away, leading to a Lions field goal.
Sanders actually coughed it up twice in a four-play sequence, but left guard Isaac Seumalo fell on the first fumble.
At halftime, the Eagles were dominating statistically but losing, 20-10, thanks to the turnovers and Jamal Agnew’s 100-yard kickoff return, after the Eagles managed a first-series field goal. That was the first time the Eagles have scored in the first quarter this season, so maybe the kickoff coverage team was too stunned to react.
Fumbles were the knock against Sanders coming out of Penn State. The Eagles drafted him in the second round and said they would fix the problem.
On Sunday, Sanders kept talking about putting mistakes behind him, when asked how they occurred. He carried 13 times for 53 yards and caught two passes for 73 more, his 40-yarder marking the longest reception of the day for either team.
“I’m not perfect. I try to be perfect, but on to the next game,” Sanders said. “I can’t let this dwell on me, and [will] just keep getting better ... I put us in some tough situations, so like I said, I have to play better.”
Agholor, targeted a dozen times, caught eight passes and scored twice, but he compiled a paltry 50 receiving yards, 20 of them coming on his first touchdown.
“It slipped out of my hands as I was trying to move upfield,” he said, when asked about his fumble. Agholor saw a potential game-winning touchdown pass slip through his hands a week earlier at Atlanta.