We should not be having this conversation. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that. The Eagles are not a playoff team. At least, not in a holistic sense. If the NFL awarded its postseason spots to its 14 best teams, the Eagles would not be in the postseason. But that’s not how they award them. So don’t blame me for broaching the subject.
As things stand, I would be derelict in my journalistic duty if I were to discuss the Eagles’ 24-21 win over the Saints on Sunday afternoon without noting that it dramatically increases the likelihood that you will be forced to devote at least one additional week of your life to this team. The pursuit of truth also compels me to note that you were probably scoffing at the mention of the playoffs at this time last year, as well as the year before. These post-Super Bowl Eagles teams have a certain fungus-like quality. They may not get better with age, but they do get more difficult to ignore.
For the third straight year, you can’t count this team out, regardless of how that makes you feel. If the Eagles beat the Cardinals next week, and if Washington loses to the Seahawks, and if the Giants lose to the Ravens in Week 16, the Eagles would win the division at 7-8-1 by beating the Cowboys and Washington in their last two games. That’s a lot of ifs, but it says something that the Eagles’ own task at hand might face the heaviest odds. They don’t control their own destiny by any stretch of the imagination, particularly if that imagination accurately accounts for the level of play that we’ve seen from the Washington Football Team here lately. But the mere existence of a plausible path should give you a sense of the enormity of Sunday’s win.
Suppose you are a masochist, and you are actually rooting for this season to live on beyond its requisite 17 weeks. What you saw against the Saints on Sunday is exactly what you needed to see. It starts not with the quarterback, or the play calling, but with the defense, which as far back as the summer has been the primary reason to think the 2020 season might eclipse its two immediate predecessors. Jim Schwartz’s unit has taken plenty of heat this year, some of it deserved, but on Sunday it was every bit the force that its architects had hoped it would be. It was the difference.
Anybody who thinks this team doesn’t stand a chance against Kyler Murray next week should rewatch the tape and note how it kept Taysom Hill under wraps. Hill’s ability to wreak havoc with his legs pales in comparison to the threat the Cardinals have under center. But these were the Saints, and this was Sean Payton, and the extent to which the Eagles shut them down should raise an eyebrow or two. They sacked Hill five times, and forced a couple of critical turnovers, and didn’t blink an eye despite their weekly conga line through the injury tent.
Against a good offensive line, and a great offensive coach, the Eagles’ front four punished the line of scrimmage throughout all four quarters of Sunday’s win.
“We figured there’d be a lot of bootlegs and stuff like that, and there was gonna be opportunities,” said defensive end Josh Sweat, who recorded two sacks, stripping Hill from behind on one of them.
In a season like this one, it has been easy to focus on shortcomings, and the defense has been no exception. But this unit entered the game ranked 11th in points, seventh in the NFL in passing yards, eighth in net yards per attempt, and fourth in average yards per drive. All of those metrics will likely improve after the Eagles held the Saints to 358 total yards. It was their seventh time holding an opponent under 370 yards in their last nine games, and their seventh time holding an opponent under 24 points in their last 10.
“This win today is not about one guy,” Pederson said. “This win is about this team and how resilient this team is. We went through it again today. Injuries piled up a little bit in the second half. Guys stayed strong. ... The defense I thought played outstanding with the two takeaways. ... Guys are battling their tails off.”
The injuries that Pederson referenced are a big variable that will factor into whatever odds the Eagles currently face. Their best cornerback limped off the field for a second straight game. Sweat and defensive tackle Malik Jackson were both shaken up. Safety Rodney McLeod went down. Pederson did not offer any long-term prognoses on any of these players. Sweat was the only one of them who spoke to the media. For what it’s worth, he gave himself a thumbs up.
For now, the thing that matters most is the chance the Eagles gave themselves on Sunday. For Pederson, it is a chance to preach a message of survival. Beat the Cardinals, beat the Cowboys, beat Washington, and there’s more than a decent chance that the Eagles will be in the playoffs at 7-8-1.
Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on your perspective. And also on your stomach.