The Eagles beat the Houston Texans, 32-30, on Sunday.
A look at the five biggest reasons why:
Last year, before Carson Wentz blew out his knee and Doug Pederson had absolutely no reservations about using him on quarterback sneaks, the Eagles were second in fourth-down attempts (26) and third in fourth-down success percentage (65.4).
This year, they haven’t been nearly as good on fourth down and Pederson hasn’t been nearly as willing to go for it. The Eagles were just 21st in fourth-down percentage (50.0) going into the Houston game, converting nine of 18 gambles, and only two of their last eight over the previous six games.
But on Sunday, with the Eagles needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt, Pederson threw caution to the wind. The Eagles went for it four times on fourth down and converted all four, including two that resulted in touchdowns.
The Eagles went for it on a fourth-and-2 at the Houston 37 on their first possession. Nick Foles threw a quick flare pass to Darren Sproles, who sped past linebacker Zach Cunningham, spun away from safety Justin Reid at the five-yard line and got into the end zone to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, the Eagles went for it on fourth down twice on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, both times in the red zone, both times with 12 personnel.
On a fourth-and-3 at the Houston eight, Foles completed a six-yard pass to Dallas Goedert on a well-designed play with the other tight end, Zach Ertz, running an inside route from the same side that caused linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, who was supposed to be covering Goedert, to get caught in traffic. Then, on a fourth-and-goal at the one, Foles hit Ertz for a one-yard touchdown.
Ertz, one of the best route-runners in the league, beat cornerback Aaron Colvin with a sharp cut to the inside off of an initial outside move.
The Eagles also converted a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter on a Foles QB sneak. But he ended up throwing an interception on the next play.
Third down has been a struggle for the Eagles this season, and it’s a big reason why they don’t control their playoff destiny. They had converted just five of 22 third-down opportunities (22.7 percent) the previous two games, including a pitiful 1-for-9 third-down performance in the overtime loss to the Cowboys.
But their third-down offense was operating on all cylinders Sunday. They converted nine of 16 third-down opportunities against the Texans.
One thing that helped was that they stayed out of a lot of third-and-longs. Eight of their 16 third downs were three yards or less. That’s because the Eagles averaged 7.7 yards on first down, which was their second highest first-down average of the season.
Foles was on fire on third down, just like he was in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. He completed 12 of 13 third-down passes for 149 yards and a touchdown.
A season-high six of Ertz’s 12 catches were on third down, including that huge 20-yard reception on third-and-10 on the Eagles’ game-winning drive, and a 23-yard touchdown catch-and-run on a third-and-three in the fourth quarter that gave the Eagles a 13-point lead.
Foles also completed a 19-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery earlier in that final drive on another third-and-10, right before he got drilled by the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney.
FYI, before that last drive, the Eagles hadn’t converted a third down of 10 yards or more in the previous five games, and had converted just six of them all season.
In what almost certainly was his last game as an Eagle at the Linc, Nick Foles went out in style. He threw for four touchdowns and a franchise-record 471 yards.
His 83-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor in the third quarter, which traveled 52 yards in the air, was as pretty a deep ball as you’re ever going to see.
His willingness to take advantage of Jeffery’s extraordinary catch radius and throw him 50/50 balls paid off on the Eagles’ game-winning drive when Jeffery outleaped cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a 19-yard gain..
To top it all off, Foles took a vicious shot to the sternum from the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney after delivering that pass to Jeffery. Was on the ground for nearly five minutes, missed just one play, then returned to the game to the loud cheers of the crowd and completed yet another third-and-10 pass, this one to Ertz for 20 yards and another first down.
The big little running back
This farewell season hasn’t turned out quite the way Darren Sproles had hoped. After missing most of last season with an ACL, he wanted to end his NFL career on his terms.
His terms didn’t include a hamstring injury that would keep him on the shelf for 10 games. His terms also didn’t include not making the playoffs a year after the Eagles won the Super Bowl without him, which is a possibility heading into Week 17.
But on Sunday, the 35-year-old running back helped the Eagles keep their playoff hopes alive with a vintage Sproles performance. He rushed for 32 yards on nine carries, including a big 16-yard run on the Eagles’ final possession that significantly shortened the distance for Jake Elliott on his game-winning field goal.
The Eagles had scored just four times on their first possession in the first 14 games. Sproles made it five Sunday when he took a short pass from Foles and bolted 37 yards down the right sideline for the 64th touchdown of his career to give the Eagles something that’s been very rare this season, a first-quarter lead.
In the second quarter, he beat Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham on a wheel route and caught a 31-yard pass from Foles that kick-started another 75-yard touchdown march.
Sproles played a season-high 38 snaps. His presence in the backfield also gives Foles an extra layer of protection. Despite his small size, he’s one of the league’s top pass-blocking running backs.
The fourth-quarter sacks
Deshaun Watson came into Sunday’s game as the most sacked quarterback in the league. He had been sacked 52 times in the Texans’ first 14 games.
The Eagles pressured him on 21 of his 44 dropbacks Sunday, but sacked him just once in the first three quarters. And that came on a first-quarter coverage sack in which Watson held on to the ball for 6.4 seconds before defensive end Daeshon Hall and cornerback Avonte Maddox finally brought him down for a two-yard loss.
Watson had a big fourth quarter, completing 13 of 19 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. But the Eagles also sacked him three times in the final quarter, two of which torpedoed potential scoring drives that would’ve ended the Eagles’ playoff hopes.
Chris Long had a critical strip sack of Watson early in the fourth quarter on a third-and-13 play at the Philadelphia 34. Pushed behind Watson by Texans right tackle Kendall Lamm, he got an assist from linemate Brandon Graham, who collapsed the pocket and prevented Watson from stepping up, which gave Long an extra split second to hit the quarterback from behind and knock the ball loose. Graham had one of his best games of the season. Pro Football Focus credited him with a season-high 11 quarterback pressures.
After Long’s strip sack, the Eagles offense drove down and scored on Ertz’s 23-yard catch-and-run to take a 29-16 lead.
On the Texans’ next possession, they had a third-and-one at the Philadelphia 21 when defensive tackle Treyvon Hester beat Texans left guard Martinas Rankin for his first career sack, dropping Watson for an eight-yard loss.
Trailing by 13 points, Texan coach Bill O’Brien decided to go for it on fourth-and-nine rather than have Ka’imi Fairbairn try a 47-yard field goal.
Watson threw the ball to running back Alfred Blue. But Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas came up and made a nice one-on-one tackle on him and held him to a five-yard gain.
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