The Eagles offense couldn’t rely on much Sunday, but it could rely on its best, most durable connection, Carson Wentz to Zach Ertz.
Until it couldn’t, with the game on the line.
Ertz was Wentz’s only truly dangerous weapon, nine catches for 94 yards, the best totals of any receiver for either team. But on the only real drive the Eagles mounted in the second half, the franchise quarterback and the tight end couldn’t come up with a completion on first-and-10 or third-and-10, in the final two minutes, both from the New England Patriots’ 26.
On fourth-and-10, the clock ticking down past a minute remaining, Wentz heaved the ball skyward as he was swarmed by a blitz, the pass hitting Nelson Agholor’s hands in the back of the end zone. J.C Jackson knocked it away, and a courageous Eagles defensive effort went to waste in a 17-10 New England victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
“It’s frustrating, the way we really moved the ball to get down there, then kind of were just stagnant there at the end,” said Wentz, who finished 20-for-40 for 214 yards, a touchdown, and a fumble lost on a sack. Only 75 of those yards were produced by wide receivers, and 29 of those came on the only catch of the day by rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
“I got to be better,” Wentz said, than the third-down miss to Ertz, who was open and had enough room in front of him to move the chains.
“I think we kind of beat ourselves, at times,” said Ertz, who scored the game-winning touchdown against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. “Just a little miscommunication” on the two-minute drive, he said.
“We never really miss like that, especially two plays in a row. Obviously, frustrated with those two plays. We put a lot of trust in ourselves to get it done in those situations, and we just didn’t get it done today.”
When the season began, the Eagles’ top four weapons were DeSean Jackson, Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, and Jordan Howard. Three of those four were missing Sunday, and the Eagles activated running back Jay Ajayi, signed Friday, who hadn’t played or practiced since suffering an ACL tear in an Oct. 7, 2018 Eagles-Vikings game. He didn’t play.
So of course, the Eagles took a 10-0 lead, including their longest drive of the season, 16 plays, 95 yards, and 9 minutes, 33 seconds of Tom Brady stuck to the sideline, unable to attack the defense he slashed for 505 passing yards back on Feb. 4, 2018.
That was the day’s highlight for the home team.
You could argue that Wentz didn’t have much of a chance, with his sparse weapons array, against the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
You could argue that he was at least as good as Brady, who actually looked 42 years old for much of the afternoon, logging a career-high 14 first-half incompletions. Wide receiver Julian Edelman was the passer for the Patriots’ only touchdown of the game.
You could also argue that Wentz took bad sacks, stayed rooted to one spot too long, flat-out missed Ertz on the late third-down throw, and didn’t elevate his teammates the way a $128 million quarterback might be expected to, coming up well short of what was needed to nail down what could have been a signature win.
“I got to get rid of the ball,” Wentz said. “I got to do better than that.”
The bottom line was a loss that left the Eagles 5-5, with a visit from the 8-2 Seattle Seahawks on tap for next Sunday, and another key player injured.
This game changed when Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson left the field on a cart after suffering a concussion in the second quarter. The Eagles didn’t score another point after Halapoulivaati Vaitai replaced Johnson, and their running game, which gained a crisp 55 yards on 12 carries in the first half, gained just 26 yards on nine carries in the second half.
“Anytime you lose a player of that caliber, it’s going to hurt,” said right guard Brandon Brooks. Johnson, injured on the lone touchdown drive, hadn’t missed an offensive snap all season. “Lane Johnsons just don’t grow on trees.”
Vaitai filled in reasonably well for left tackle Jason Peters in the Super Bowl run, but he has regressed noticeably since then.
“ ‘V’ came in and battled, did a hell of a job, but yeah, you just don’t replace a Lane Johnson,” Brooks said.
“We didn’t make enough plays. I thought the defense really kept us in this game, for the most part,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. He said he thought the second- and third-and-long situations put Wentz in a bad spot. He thought receivers not getting open contributed to the five sacks.
“We just weren’t efficient on third down, against a really good third-down defense,” Ertz said, after the Eagles went 3-for-13 there. “We came into the game with a lot of confidence in our third-down performance, and we just didn’t execute, had penalties.”
“That’s terrible,” Wentz said of the third-down performance. “That’s something we definitely pride ourselves on, is third downs, and we didn’t do well today. … I got to be better.”
Given the opposition, this might have been the Eagles’ best defensive effort of the season, particularly against the pass. Edelman, who threw the touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett, was Brady’s leading receiver, with five catches on 10 targets for just 53 yards. Brady’s wideouts accounted for only 114 yards. Maybe he and Wentz could have bonded over this afterward.
“They came out with a trick play to score,” Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “If it takes trick plays to score on us, then so be it.”
Brady hit Eagles corner Jalen Mills with a third down throw that Mills couldn’t corral. “I was kind of ticked off with that,” Mills said.
The Patriots did not turn the ball over, though they benefited from an apparent early whistle on what seemed to be a fumble my tight end Matt LaCosse, recovered by the Eagles, late in the third quarter.
The Eagles brought some razzle-dazzle early -- at one point lining center Jason Kelce up in the slot, as if he were his brother, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. But in the second half, Pederson seemed out of ideas. Wentz threw a third-and-10 slant over the middle for 6 yards to Jordan Matthews, in the first game of Matthews’ third Eagles stint. There was never any chance Matthews was getting the first down. It was his only catch, on six targets.
Another time, Wentz drilled a third-down pass at Miles Sanders’ feet, with no one open and his offensive line dissolving.