The Eagles got off their late-night charter flight from New Orleans having just absorbed the most one-sided beating ever delivered to a defending Super Bowl champion, 48-7, on Nov. 18, at the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints.
They were banged up, they were 4-6, they were headed nowhere.
Yet, Sunday afternoon, the Eagles will take the field in Landover, Md., with a chance to make the playoffs. They earn the NFC’s final wild-card bid if they can beat the Washington Redskins while the Chicago Bears defeat the host Minnesota Vikings.
This isn’t a great situation -- the Bears are not favored, and they might pull their starters if it becomes clear the 49ers aren’t going to upset the Rams, since a Rams win would eliminate Chicago’s chance at a first-round bye -- but it is far better than the prospect that faced the Eagles as the clock struck midnight that night in November.
Until New Orleans, the losses had been infuriating, but really close – five setbacks, by a total of 22 points. You could tell yourself that everything was pretty much OK, that if one play had gone another way, yadda, yadda, yadda, on to next week.
New Orleans was different. It seemed to teach the lesson that if you let enough little things go, pretty soon they become big things, and you are well on your way to becoming a bad team.
“Dark times,” right tackle Lane Johnson said Friday. “A lot of guys are prideful, care about their job and what they do. People aren’t satisfied with going out there and getting their ass whupped.
“That’s really it. Getting embarrassed. You learn a lot from those games. Look at yourself in the mirror. At the end of the day, you can lie to anybody you want to, but you can’t lie to yourself.”
The Eagles have won four of their five games since New Orleans, the only loss coming in overtime, at Dallas, in a game that Eagles fans will always feel was decided more by the officials than the players.
The popular narrative right now is Nick Foles riding in to save the season, since Foles has authored the season’s two biggest and most recent wins, back-to-back triumphs over the playoff-bound Rams and Texans. But the offense started coming together in the victories over the Giants and Redskins, before the Dallas game, which turned out to be the last of the season for Carson Wentz, after tests uncovered a stress-fractured vertebra.
“I think the offense – guys have really settled into their roles, settled into being accountable,” center Jason Kelce said Friday. “If you look at, especially the first four or five games, we had a lot of penalties, gross mental errors and things like that. It seems like that has continued to get better. Maybe not every single game, but in general, over the course of the season, that has gotten better.”
The return of Darren Sproles on Dec. 3 against Washington has really helped, as has improved play along the offensive line, and of course, the last few games, Foles, who last week threw for a franchise record 471 yards. The last five games have featured four of the top five Eagles point totals this season, and in the Dallas game, the Eagles equaled their highest losing point total this season.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday that the aftermath of the New Orleans loss was the season’s pivotal point.
“Guys really hung together. It could have spiraled at that point and it didn't,” Pederson said. “I think that's the one thing that I'm the most proud of coming out of this season, right now. Just looking at that moment and how things went positive for us instead of the other way.”
Pederson credited his leadership committee, naming Wentz, Malcolm Jenkins, Fletcher Cox, Sproles, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Graham and Chris Long specifically.
“Those guys are the ones you lean on and say, ‘Hey, look, guys. This is an important time in our season right now. It can go obviously one of two ways.’ They chose the right path, obviously,” Pederson said. “I do lean on those guys.”
The defense also got healthier – because of injuries suffered during that New Orleans game, corners Chandon Sullivan and De’Vante Bausby played more than a third of the defensive snaps against the Saints. Neither Sullivan nor Bausby is on this Sunday’s Eagles roster.
“We had a lot of changing going on, so we had to get used to guys working together, getting some new chemistry out there, getting some things down,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said.
Corner Rasul Douglas, who has improved steadily since taking on a significant role at corner when Ronald Darby was lost to an ACL tear Nov. 11, had a simpler explanation to the turnaround.
“I guess everybody just started not wanting to lose anymore,” Douglas said. “We said we were tired of losing. We played like we were tired of losing. And we started winning.”
Sunday, the Eagles will be without left guard Isaac Seumalo (pectoral injury), special teams linebacker D.J. Alexander (hamstring), corner Sidney Jones (hamstring), wide receiver Mike Wallace, who hasn’t yet fully practiced after rejoining the team from injured reserve (Wallace broke his fibula Week 2), and of course, Carson Wentz (vertebra stress fracture).
The Seumalo injury probably only matters if center Jason Kelce, questionable with a knee injury, either can’t play or aggravates his injury Sunday. The backup center is Stefen Wisniewski, who starts at left guard when Seumalo is unavailable. So if anything happens to Kelce, Wiz probably moves to center and Chance Warmack plays left guard.