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What we learned from Eagles-Redskins: Playoff hopes alive, pass rush and pass defense not so much | Jeff McLane

Carson Wentz is starting to prove himself in the clutch, and other takeaways from Sunday's win in Washington.

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, right, does his best to pressure Washington quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, left, during the thrid quarter.
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, right, does his best to pressure Washington quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, left, during the thrid quarter.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

LANDOVER, Md. – The Eagles, once again, had trouble with one of the NFL’s worst teams, but they nonetheless rallied past the Redskins, 37-27, Sunday at FedEx Field.

Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

1. The Eagles’ playoff hopes are very much alive. Well, here we are: Week 16, Eagles-Cowboys, for all the marbles (pretty much). Exactly how the NFL schedule makers drew it up and how many preseason prognosticators envisioned the NFC East race. Few expected both teams to be only 7-7 at this point. But style points don’t count, and a victory Sunday, coupled with either a win over the New York Giants or a Cowboys loss vs. the Redskins in the last week, punches the Eagles’ ticket to the postseason. Dallas would need only a victory Sunday to clinch their second straight division title.

The Eagles opened as 2 1/2-point home underdogs, which upon further examination, makes some sense. The Cowboys roasted them in the first meeting, 37-10, and all things being equal, have a better roster. Dallas is also coming off an impressive 44-21 pasting of the Rams after a three-game skid. Who knows which team will arrive in Philly. But the Eagles should expect nothing less than the best version considering what is at stake. Jason Garrett could tip the scales in favor of the Eagles, although he’s won 11 of 18 in head-to-head meetings and four straight.

There are some obvious matchups that favor Dallas, of which I’ll address further down, but the Eagles are riding a mini wave after two comeback victories. Their resiliency, despite personnel deficiencies and injuries, remains impressive. Doug Pederson, if anything, often gets the most out of his players. But it will be all for naught if the Eagles can’t cross the finish line. The big-picture questions about the future can be shelved at least for another week. A loss, however, would bring them back into the fore with crushing realism.

2. Carson Wentz has earned the nickname “Comeback Carson.” That’s a joke, but after coming up short in 13 out of 15 previous opportunities to lead the Eagles to either a win or tie in the latter minutes of a game in which they trailed, Wentz has delivered in the clutch in back-to-back weeks. He’s completed 24 of 31 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions (132.5 QB passer rating) in the last two fourth quarters and an overtime. He was a perfect 8-of-8 on Sunday’s game-winning drive that resulted in a perfectly placed jump-ball lob to receiver Greg Ward in the end zone. As I wrote last week, the rest of the season had to be first and foremost about Wentz and ending on a positive note. He needs to know how it feels to play in late December games with meaning, and preferably, in the postseason. But most important, in terms of the offseason narrative, he needs to finish on an upswing.

Wentz was far from perfect Sunday, although some ludicrously expect perfection. He was a touch inaccurate on some of his early throws, particularly to tight end Zach Ertz, which often hasn’t been the case. He appeared to rush a pass to Ertz in the end zone when he had time to set his feet on the Eagles’ opening drive. He threw high to the tight end a few other times, as well. But Wentz’s biggest current issue is fumbling. In his last eight games, he’s lost seven of 14 fumbles. He lost one of three on Sunday, critically in the fourth quarter with 6 minutes and 40 seconds remaining. The Eagles defense held the Redskins to a go-ahead field goal, but Wentz just can’t turn the ball over in that situation. He’s holding it too long and needs to have better pocket awareness. Fumbles have long been an issue. His ball security was good in the first six games. He didn’t have a single fumble. But with injuries and the ineffectiveness of receivers on the outside, Wentz has seemingly tried to do too much. And fumbles have come in bunches.

Some, if not half, haven’t been all on the quarterback’s shoulders. He lost a fumble after getting sacked on the second drive of the first Dallas game, and there appeared to be little he could have done to avoid it. But early turnovers doomed the Eagles in Texas and they just can’t afford for Wentz to be careless with the ball again. If you feel heat or the clock in your head has ticked four times, escape. If you can’t, get rid of it. And if you can’t do either, bottle it up and take the sack.

3. The ascension of Greg Ward and Boston Scott is an indictment of the Eagles front office and coaching staff. Ward has been around since the 2017 offseason. Scott was acquired last season. Hey, great job finding them, but it’s not as if Howie Roseman or Doug Pederson were directly responsible. But they are accountable for their roster placement and playing time. And it’s become obvious that Ward should have at least been ahead of Mack Hollins at receiver and Scott should have been ahead of Darren Sproles at running back. The comparisons to Julian Edelman for Ward and to Sproles for Scott have been hyperbolic. They’ve played in only a handful of games or so. But each brings an element to an offense that has been lacking in complementary playmakers. They’re both young. And they’re both cheap.

Hollins was likely more of a front-office mistake. He was a former fourth-round draft pick and was thus likely given the benefit of doubt. Sproles was a Pederson guy. The coach – as do many – values experience and trustworthiness. He can be loyal to a fault and bringing back Sproles at the expense of someone like Scott was short-sighted.

There’s something to be said for perseverance. Ward has endured 16 roster moves with the Eagles alone. Give me the hungry guy over the entitled one every Sunday. Ward’s game-winning touchdown catch came on a jump ball. When was the last time any of the Eagles’ other receivers made a catch as difficult under those circumstances? Wentz hasn’t been consistent enough, but his performance has to be qualified by the issues at receiver. Rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside played 71 snaps Sunday, but he finished with zero catches on two targets. As Miles Sanders has showed, it is possible to improve over the course of a first season.

4. The Eagles’ coverage needs to be better vs. the Cowboys. Some may suggest draining blood from a stone as an easier request, but the Eagles’ secondary has pulled it together before. It was only a month ago they kept Tom Brady and Russell Wilson in check for successive weeks. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills aren’t skilled enough to consistently play at that level every game but each has rebounded from subpar performances this month – Darby on Sunday after a couple of brutal outings vs. the Dolphins and Giants, and Mills last week after having arguably his worst game in Miami. Slot cornerback Avonte Maddox was mostly responsible for Redskins receiver Terry McLaurin’s 75-yard, first-quarter touchdown. But he fought back and was pivotal down the stretch. I don’t think that the Eagles’ safety play was strong Sunday. Rodney McLeod was occasionally out of position or late to the ball.

Rookie Dwayne Haskins, who entered with an NFL-worst 61.2 passer rating, was made to look like John Elway through the first three quarters. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns and without an interception (134.6 rating) over that span. A large chunk of that production came on the McLaurin pass, but it counts all the same. The Eagles, it should be noted, have now surrendered 14 pass plays of 40 yards or longer this season, which is tied for second worst in the NFL.

Jim Schwartz’s defense finally did slow Haskins and the Redskins offense. After allowing 7.9 yards a play on the first seven drives, the Eagles held Washington to 3.5 yards on the final three. But it’s hard to shake the memory of the first three quarters. McLaurin is a future stud, and running back Adrian Peterson still has some gas, but the Eagles had trouble slowing an offense that had averaged only 14.5 points in its first 13 games. The Cowboys have significantly more firepower. The Eagles’ secondary will need to bring it’s “A” game Sunday.

5. The Eagles’ pass rush needs to be better vs. the Cowboys. Haskins had been sacked a remarkable 26 times on 160 pass attempts entering Sunday, and yet the Eagles couldn’t get to him once. They recorded no sacks and didn’t hit the quarterback once on 30 drops. The Redskins were also without their best offensive lineman – guard Brandon Scherff – not to mention holdout tackle Trent Williams. Fletcher Cox was silent most of the game. Brandon Graham had some run stops but didn’t sniff Haskins. Vinny Curry, playing more snaps with the injured Derek Barnett sidelined, was quiet as well.

The Eagles can ill afford to give Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott time to scan the field. They sacked him three times in the first meeting but hit him only one other time. They must pressure him without sending additional rushers. Prescott has been effective vs. the blitz, and a lot of the credit goes to a Cowboys offensive line that is still above average, and certainly better than Washington’s unit.