Dolphins 37, Eagles 31: Birds defense destroyed, and team’s illusions about itself might be next
Leadership, coaching and player personnel decisions all need serious scrutiny as what was supposed to be a season of championship contention slides into farce.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There will come a day, not too distant from now, when we will get some straight answers about why this 5-7 Eagles team is such a mess.
Sunday was not that day. Turns out, for Eagles fans seeking the truth, Dallas’s Thanksgiving loss to Buffalo was less wonderful than it seemed. The Cowboys’ losing made it possible for Eagles coach Doug Pederson and his players to spray the air freshener of “we have to stick together, we can still make the playoffs” over the rancid carcass of their 37-31 loss to the host Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
Yes, a team that has lost three games in a row, a team that blew 10-0 and 28-14 leads Sunday en route to allowing the now-3-9 Dolphins to achieve their highest point total in four years, can make the playoffs if it wins its final four games. The holding of one’s breath is not recommended.
“I would say it’s a long shot, but we’re not out of it,” Pederson said after watching his defense get disemboweled by 37-year-old Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (27-for-39, 365 yards, three touchdowns, after a first-snap interception).
The Eagles are not contenders to return to this stadium for Super Bowl LIV. They technically can still make the playoffs, but that technicality is worth just about as much as all those preseason assumptions about how talented they were.
Until Sunday, it was possible to cling to the narrative that they were gamely fighting their way through injuries and a critical lack of depth at wide receiver, and that as they did in 2018, the Eagles would pull themselves together and at least put on a stretch run in which they resembled the team that won Super Bowl LII.
Instead, after the first few minutes Sunday, they looked as if they had switched uniforms with the Dolphins. It would not be a surprise to see that dwindling shot at the playoffs disappear next Monday night against the Giants, or the Sunday after that against Washington. When it happens, maybe all the deflecting and pretending can end and we can sort out a mess of a season that calls into question coaching, locker room leadership, and the way the roster was built.
“We self-destructed in a couple of areas today, and it just, it hurt us,” Pederson said. “We didn’t make enough plays. They made them, we didn’t.”
Carson Wentz (28-for-46, 310 yards, three touchdowns, and a final-play Hail Mary interception) played reasonably well but could have been better.
He missed Alshon Jeffery (nine catches on 16 targets, 137 yards and a touchdown) on a couple of long balls that could have made a difference, and he heaved the ball out of reach of an open Nelson Agholor on a screen. Many other times, Wentz’s receivers seemed to get no separation. The ball seldom came out quickly.
The Eagles were outscored 24-3 after taking that 28-14 lead on the first series of the third quarter. The defense, helpless as it was in the second half, didn’t get much help.
“At the end of the day, we’re not making enough plays in critical situations,” said Wentz, who saw his best and most reliable weapon, tight end Zach Ertz, drop a third-down pass at the Dolphins’ 5. That sequence ended with kicker Jake Elliott’s first field goal miss of the season, from 49 yards.
“I’m extremely disappointed in my play today,” Ertz said. He was questionable to play with a hamstring injury, and finished with three catches on six targets, for 24 yards. “Probably one of the worst games I’ve played in a long time.”
Ertz aside, the Eagles went to South Florida healthier than they have been in a while. Their defense, which hadn’t given up more than 17 points in any of the last four games, should have been able to dominate a hapless Miami offensive line and a quarterback who had thrown 10 interceptions along with his 10 touchdown passes. Instead, the defense wilted completely, giving up five touchdowns and a field goal on a string of six Miami possessions. All three Eagles sacks came in the first half.
Asked about this, Pederson, who has little to do with the defense, cited third- and fourth-down conversions and penalties, which certainly were a problem. The Eagles finished with 10 for 91 yards, seven of them in the first half.
On the sequence that ended with the Dolphins’ scoring on a trick-play fourth-down pass from punter Matt Haack to kicker Josh Sanders, Miami was able to snap the ball nine times after it had crossed the Eagles’ 10-yard line, including two plays on which the visitors were penalized. The rare overturning of a pass interference non-call set up the TD.
“Penalties just really killed us. Other than that, we just weren’t connecting on a lot of things,” linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. He said the pass from the punter to the kicker “was probably the best trick play I’ve ever seen,” something with which Eagles fans might wish to quibble.
“We were trying to limit the big plays and get after the quarterback,” Grugier-Hill said. “I thought we did a good job of that in the first quarter. After that, I don’t know.”
Wide receiver DeVante Parker destroyed both Eagles corners, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, to the tune of seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 22.7 yards per catch.
“I felt horrible,” Darby said. “It was one of my worst performances.”
Pederson kept emphasizing that the Dolphins were a “good team,” something that surely found a sympathetic audience back home. Miami ranked 30th in the NFL both offensively and defensively when the game began and had lost its last two games by a combined 34 points.
“Everybody is hurt by it, because we put a lot into this game,” Brandon Graham said. “For us to not come out with the win, especially knowing that [a virtual tie for] first place is on the line, it’s disappointing. … We’re all disappointed.”
Graham said that in the second half, the Dolphins max protected and Fitzpatrick “was getting the ball out quick.” Fitzpatrick threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns last season, when he beat the Eagles on behalf of Tampa Bay.
“I think we tired them out a little bit, just being able to sustain some drives, and not have some three-and-outs or some quicker series,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think hats off to DeVante Parker for the display he put on out there today. That was special. He made some really big plays, and that really got us going. When you’re throwing to a guy like that, that’s making plays like that, it’s easy to play quarterback.”
It was not that easy for Wentz.
“I’ve got to be better in a lot of ways, those big-time situations, too,” Wentz said.
“I have a lot of faith and a lot of belief in the guys that we have,” Wentz said. “I’ve seen crazier” things than the Eagles’ rallying to make the playoffs. Wentz repeated that “I’ve seen crazier.”
It was not the Week 14 rallying cry anyone anticipated when the season began.