It’s unclear whether the Eagles would have taken the ball first if they’d won the coin toss Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but it couldn’t have worked out much better for them.
Their defense forced a three-and-out on the Bills’ opening drive, and the Eagles had the opportunity to control the ball and pile up points at the start of the second half after scoring late in the second quarter. Less than a minute into the third quarter, the team had something it has seldom possessed this season: a double-digit lead.
It was the first time the Eagles had a two-possession advantage — or a lead at all, for that matter— since Oct. 6 against the New York Jets. It was only the third game they’d been able to get a double-digit margin this season, with the first coming in Week 1 against Washington.
By avoiding their tendency to dig an early hole, the Eagles were able to play a style quite different from what they’d grown accustomed: They ran the football, rushed the passer, and controlled the clock.
The Eagles totaled 218 rushing yards, including rookie Miles Sanders’ 65-yard run that gave them a 17-7 lead just 52 seconds into the second half. After Sanders’ score, the Eagles called 21 designed runs and 11 pass plays. Carson Wentz rushed for two first downs on those passing-play calls, the offense padded the lead, and the defense continued to protect it.
“It’s huge. We kind of felt even in the first half that the run game was really close,” center Jason Kelce said. “After that big run, that definitely supplanted our lead and kind of gave us the feeling that ‘Now, this is our game to lose.’ When you’re in that situation, you’re going to get a lot of opportunities to run the ball.”
The offensive approach might seem like a breath of fresh air, but it was the product of the team’s lead, and can serve as a reminder that the 2017 Eagles, when they were at their best, thrived at getting and protecting leads.
On defense, the Eagles made the Bills more one-dimensional in the second half. Josh Allen dropped back to pass 25 times, compared to just six designed runs. Allen was sacked three times: by Nathan Gerry, Brandon Graham, and Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles’ pass rush has been spotty so far this season, but taking the Bills’ rushing attack out of the game for the second half helped the front four in multiple ways. It allowed them to sell out on the pass more, but it also gave Graham and Vinny Curry the opportunity to rush as defensive tackles alongside Cox.
“Once you really got that game into a two-score game, with the way the wind was and everything else, it obviously made it a lot easier to be able to handle a lot of that stuff,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “When it’s one score, you don’t want guys slipping and falling on the wet field, or a long ball over your head or one missed tackle or one missed assignment, and all of a sudden you’re talking about a tie game.
“It was important to get that two-score lead right there. ... I think you saw that, and it’s a good sign for our team.”