The resilient Eagles overcame a late Texans surge and clung onto their postseason hopes with a dramatic 32-30 win over Houston Sunday.
Win, lose or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. The Birds are still chirping. When the Eagles lost to the Cowboys two weeks ago, it seemed as if all was lost. I kept writing about their playoff chances, but it was done more out of duty than any belief they could pull it off. The Eagles still need help. A win at the 7-8 Redskins, which would give them five wins in their last six games, won’t alone be enough. They need the 8-6-1 Vikings to lose at home to the 11-4 Bears to secure the last of two wild-card berths (the 9-6 Seahawks took the first Sunday night with a win over the Chiefs). Minnesota has won two straight, but they have yet to beat a team with nine or more wins this season. The Bears still have plenty to play for, including a one-week bye in the postseason. They would jump from the No. 3 seed into No. 2 with a victory and a loss by the 12-3 Rams. It’s a long shot with Los Angeles hosting the 4-11 49ers. The Eagles-Redskins, Vikings-Bears and Rams-49ers games all start at 4:25 p.m. ET. The NFL typically schedules Week 17 games that directly affect each other to kickoff at the same time, but there’s a chance the Bears take their foot off the pedal in the second half if the Rams jump out to a large early lead. In case you’re wondering: if the Eagles get in as the No. 6 seed, they’ll face either the Bears (most likely) or the Rams (if they lose to the 49ers) on the road Jan. 5 or 6.
2. Nick Foles is a winner. Do we sometimes place too much emphasis on a quarterback’s impact on wins and losses? Sure. They often get far too much credit or blame. But there just isn’t a player who directly affects the outcome of NFL games as much as the quarterback, and the Eagles don’t win Sunday without Foles. His record as a starter with the Eagles is now 23-12 (.657 winning percentage). I’m going to avoid the Foles-Carson Wentz arguments for now. If Foles is deemed healthy enough to play Sunday, I can’t imagine Doug Pederson pulling the plug and tossing Wentz back under center even if he’s been cleared. I wrote my column off the game on Foles, but space kept me from including other tidbits: Foles had several close encounters with Jadeveon Clowney before the Texans linebacker drove his helmet into the quarterback’s sternum on the final drive. Clowney strip-sacked Foles in the first half and later dragged him down to the ground by his helmet on a two-point conversion. The mild-mannered Foles went ballistic on referee John Parry. “I was a little upset and I shouldn’t do that, but I was fired up a little bit,” Foles said. Tackle Lane Johnson said that he leaned in close hoping to hear if the angelic Foles finally cursed. Alas, he did not. After the game, Foles left the locker room to get X-rays on his ribs. He didn’t return until long after most of his teammates had left. He was whistling as he walked past a few reporters, but he was barely audible. When he finally took the podium in the adjacent interview room, he looked stiff. He said he felt great and that he would be ready for the Redskins. I’m sure it was difficult getting out of bed this morning. Foles was asked about the possibility of Sunday being his last time playing as an Eagle at Lincoln Financial Field. He admitted that the thought crossed his mind and he visibly got choked up as he spoke. Foles wants to be a starter. He is unlikely the get that opportunity in Philadelphia. I can think of only one scenario in which he’s back next year.
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3. Doug Pederson has found his mojo. For the second week in a row, the Eagles coach pushed the right buttons. I don’t know what flipped the switch, because Pederson had been timid for most of the first three months of the season, but he’s back to being “Big Balls” Doug. He rolled the dice on fourth down three times in the first half and was in the money each time. On the Eagles’ opening drive, he went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Houston 37 and Foles hit Darren Sproles out of the backfield for a 37-yard touchdown. On a 14-play drive in the second quarter, he gambled twice, first on fourth and 3 at the Texans 8 (Dallas Goedert converted with a 6-yard grab) and then on fourth down at the 1 (Zach Ertz caught a touchdown). The Eagles failed to convert on the two-point try, but the aggressiveness made sense. Pederson wasn’t perfect. The sequence at the end of the half, after the Eagles advanced into Houston territory with 27 seconds left, was awkward and didn’t net any points. But Pederson has seemingly recaptured some of the fortitude that made him a fearless play caller in 2017. Maybe it’s Foles? Maybe it’s a because he can play the underdog card again? The Eagles averaged a season-high 9.1 yards per pass attempt, topping last week’s 8.7 average. And on a day when the run game was stagnant, partly because Houston was committed to stopping it, Pederson called 50 passes to 22 runs, balance critics be damned.
4. Lane Johnson can still dominate. J.J. Watt is a future Hall of Famer. He entered Sunday’s game with 14½ sacks. The Texans defensive end isn’t as explosive as he was before two injury-riddled seasons, but he’s still a beast and Johnson neutralized him for most of the game. Watt finished with a tame three tackles and had no sacks. Johnson was miffed when he wasn’t voted to a second straight Pro Bowl. I don’t know what kind of argument he had. He got off to a slow start this season, but he’s played through a high ankle sprain and a MCL knee sprain, and has seemingly gotten better as the season’s progressed. Foles dropped 50 times and Watt didn’t hit him once, aside from the time he drew a roughing-the-passer penalty. “Go watch the tape,” Johnson said. “There’s no chips. There’s no nothing. It’s one-on-one.”
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5. Zach Ertz is a NFL record holder. With his tenth catch Sunday, Ertz passed Jason Witten and set the league mark for receptions in a season by a tight end with 111. He added two more for good measure and still has a game left to pad his stats. Ertz was humbled. He credited others for his achievement and started off by thanking Witten, who has taken an interest in Ertz’s career since he was a rookie, and former Eagles tight end Brent Celek, who first took Ertz under his wing more than five years ago. Ertz finished the day with 12 catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. His second score was one of his best this season. On third and 3, Foles found him alone in the flat. Ertz turned and there was room. He’s not known for his physicality, but he barreled his way into the end zone from 23 yards out. Ertz caught only three of seven passes last week, which had some questioning the number of targets he saw with Wentz at quarterback. It’s true they have chemistry, and maybe Wentz had come to rely on him too often, but it was hard to quibble with a 75-percent catch ratio. Ertz simply gets open a lot. He’s the ultimate safety valve, and Foles trusted him with 16 targets Sunday.
6. Jim Schwartz still has trouble closing out offenses. For three-and-a-half quarters, the Eagles had the Texans bottled up. They had stopped the run and made Houston one dimensional. Deshaun Watson is a good quarterback, but he can be inconsistent, and he had only one true receiving stud in DeAndre Hopkins (nine catches for 104 yards). And then receiver Demaryius Thomas left with an injury. But when Josh Adams fumbled with five-and-a-half minutes to go, the wheels on defense came off. It was almost as if Bill O’Brien finally figured out that the Eagles were depleted in the secondary. Watson had given them fits with his legs, but he then started to uncork impressive tosses downfield and there was little cornerback Rasul Douglas and company could do. I still don’t know how Watson shook three pass rushers on one completion. The pass rush suddenly grew quiet, as well. Foles saved the day, so the defensive meltdown will mostly be forgotten, but it’s been a trend throughout the season, even before injuries plagued Schwartz’s backfield.
7. Darren Sproles needs more touches. The Eagles understandably didn’t want to overload him upon his return from a 10-week hamstring strain. But there isn’t a running back as reliable on the roster, even before Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement were lost for the season. Sproles played 38 of 82 snaps (46 percent) Sunday, more than Adams (25) and Wendell Smallwood (16). I would keep Sproles as the lead back next week, as well. It’s clear now how much the Eagles missed the 35-year old, who has said before that this would be his last NFL season. Sproles scored the Eagles' first points with a bowling ball, 37-yard catch-and-run touchdown. He pulled in a 31-yard grab on a third and one wheel route. And he was the Eagles’ most productive ball carrier (nine rushes for 32 yards) on a tough sledding day. His 16-yard draw on the final drive helped give Jake Elliott a chip shot field goal.
8. Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery have big-play ability. The Eagles had been lacking production on the outside for long stretches this season. There was a combination of factors, but it kept the offense from stretching defenses and it resulted in far too many plodding drives. Agholor has speed. Use it. Jeffery has jump-ball skills. Use them. Foles has. He hasn’t tried to be perfect. He’s been willing to take more chances downfield. Jeffery didn’t pull in a 50-50 toss into the end zone in the first half, but the attempt kept the Texans honest. Jeffery would later pull two deep tosses over the middle – the first he took for a total of 52 yards and the second converted a long third down on the Eagles' final drive. And Agholor’s 83-yard touchdown snap was a thing a beauty. Foles checked to another pass play after his pre-snap reading of the coverage. Agohlor toasted Tyrann Mathieu on a deep post. And Foles lofted a raindrop into his receiver’s lap. Agholor took care of the rest. The Eagles have still yet to find a way to implement Golden Tate (two catches for 13 yards) into the offense, further proof that they already had the horses.
9. Jake Elliott is clutch. He’s missed far too many gimmes. But give Elliott a game-winning attempt, and he’s gold. The Eagles kicker missed another extra point Sunday, his second in three games. He’s also missed his share of 30-something yard field goals over the last two years. But when it came time to hit the 35-yarder that would seal the game, Elliott split the uprights. Could his PAT (93.8) and field goal percentages (83.3) be better? Absolutely. But he’s been clutch with the game on the line far too often the last two seasons for the Eagles to go searching for another kicker.