GREEN BAY, Wis. — The tattered, battered Eagles defense, playing with its back to the goal line one more time, got a deflection from new cornerback Craig James, subbing for an injured Avonte Maddox, and Nigel Bradham tracked the errant Aaron Rodgers pass as it tumbled through the air. Bradham hauled it in, sprinted upfield, and was tackled with 20 seconds remaining, sealing a huge 34-27 Eagles victory.
Bradham tried a Lambeau Leap into the stands but didn’t quite make it, he said.
"I seen him go up and I’m like, ‘I gotta go get it … wherever it goes’ " said Bradham, who had dropped a possible pick-six earlier in the game. “It was a slant flat route. Craig was just playing great coverage.”
The Eagles had just watched Maddox leave the field on a stretcher after getting popped in the jaw, which collided with teammate Andrew Sendejo’s helmet as they unsuccessfully tried to stop a completion that put the Packers at the Eagles’ 7, first and goal, with a minute and six seconds left. Aaron Jones then ran the ball to the Eagles’ 3.
Rodgers was 34-for-52 for an incredible 422 yards and a pair of touchdowns when he stepped to the line with 28 seconds remaining, second and goal. Nearly everyone at Lambeau Field not wearing Eagles colors thought he was going to pull out another magical victory.
“Probably the best in the game,” Bradham said of Rodgers. “Hall of Famer, of course … It’s going to be tough … But the thing is, standing and fighting, keep fighting, never lose your composure.”
Bradham and the Eagles’ defense, which authored an incredible goal line stand earlier in the fourth quarter, kept getting back up, in an effort that brought back memories of Super Bowl LII. The Packers, 3-0 coming in, finished the evening with 491 total yards, but Bradham finished with the ball, and the Eagles finished with what could turn out to be a season-saving win.
“Gosh, the defense stepped up when they needed to tonight and made some big plays,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.
James, just up from the practice squad, jumped the slant to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, almost like he knew it was coming, because he did.
“[Malcolm Jenkins] told me, ‘You know where the ball’s coming,’ ” James said. “I was targeted, no doubt. I’m the guy nobody knows about, just coming into the game … You can’t blame 'em … I knew I had a [pass break up] but I did not know [Bradham] caught the ball.”
When he wasn’t playing special teams, James spent the evening standing next to secondary coach Cory Undlin, trying to follow the evening’s twists. The deflection came on his second defensive snap, the first being Jones’ run to the 3.
“Ready for my name to be called. Unfortunately it had to be Avonte being injured," said James, who played in three Vikings games last season as an undrafted rookie from Southern Illinois. The Eagles signed him to their practice squad after this year’s roster cutdowns. He was up for the Atlanta game, then back down in favor of tight end Alex Ellis last week. Ronald Darby’s hamstring injury brought James back to the 53 this week.
The Eagles are 2-2, and as quarterback Carson Wentz and others noted afterward, the difference between 2-2 and 1-3 is “huge.”
Wentz and the Eagles offense showed up Thursday night determined to reclaim the team’s status as top NFC contenders, against the unbeaten Packers.
The Eagles defense wasn’t reading from the same script at first, as the evening became a tennis match between Wentz and Rodgers, on Rodgers’ home court.
“He can sling it around. He kept it interesting,” said Wentz, who benefited from the strongest ground attack the Eagles have mounted this season — 33 carries, 176 yards. The Eagles’ offensive line, bolstered by the return to form of tight end Dallas Goedert and the resulting ability to play “12” personnel, dominated the Green Bay defensive front.
“We had a statement, a mission we wanted to get done, and we were able to do it,” right guard Brandon Brooks said.
The Green Bay defense gave up almost as many points as it had allowed in its three previous games combined (35, 11.7 per game). It gave up three touchdown passes, after allowing only one through three games.
“I thought we had a great game plan, I thought the backs really, really executed well, obviously. I thought we executed everything up front. It was a really fun game for the O-line, for sure,” center Jason Kelce said.
The Eagles’ defense helped Wentz break serve, stopping Rodgers on four successive passes from the Eagles’ 1-yard-line, giving the Eagles the ball with a 34-27 lead and nine minutes remaining.
That might have been the game if Wentz could have mounted a scoring drive, but he missed Alshon Jeffery on third and 6 from the Packers’ 49 and Rodgers got the ball back.
Rodgers easily moved to the verge of a tying touchdown, then threw the fatal interception.
“We could have wavered so many times, but we didn’t,” said defensive end Brandon Graham, who recovered a Rodgers fumble that fueled a 21-point Eagles second quarter. “The leadership showed today, through all the adversity that we went through. We just stuck together … The offense was scoring. All we needed was a stop.”
The defense’s troubles began very early. On the Packers’ first play, Rodgers dumped the ball to running back Jamaal Williams, stood up by Bradham at the line of scrimmage, the Green Bay 11. This seemed encouraging, until Derek Barnett came flying in, helmet-first, and leveled Williams.
That was worth 15 yards, probably should have brought an ejection, and did bring a stretcher onto the field. Williams was wheeled away to be evaluated for a head and neck injury. It was an ugly night in that regard, Maddox going out the same way with 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining. Both players had feeling in their extremities, the teams said.
The Williams hit began a five-play, 89-yard Green Bay touchdown drive, preserving the Eagles’ perfect record of allowing opponent points on the first drive of the game in every game so far. The key play came when the Eagles blitzed on second-and-1 from the Packers’ 35, and Rodgers floated a beauty to Davante Adams for a 58-yard gain, singeing Sidney Jones, who soon left with a hamstring problem.
The Eagles’ secondary, down Darby coming into the game, seemed to dissolve into chaos. Adams caught six passes for 107 yards in the first quarter, the first 100-yard quarter for a Packers receiver in 15 years. He had eight catches for 158 at halftime. He left the game with a toe injury after catching 10 for 180.
When Mason Crosby added a 30-yard field goal, the Eagles had dug a double-digit hole for the fourth successive time.
Miles Sanders got the Eagles back into the game with a 67-yard kickoff return to the Green Bay 34. Five plays later, Wentz found Jeffery for a 6-yard touchdown.
It was 13-7 Green Bay when Crosby, not wanting to get burned by another return, tried to place a kickoff in the corner and put it out of bounds instead. Wentz authored an 11-play scoring drive, finding Goedert on a slant from 3 yards out that gave the Eagles a 14-13 lead.
Then Barnett made a grab for redemption, stripping Rodgers on a sack, with Graham recovering at the Packers’ 17. It seemed like a huge play for a defense that has struggled to create turnovers.
Four Jordan Howard runs later it was 21-13 and the Eagles were rolling. Or were they?
They left 59 seconds in the half for Rodgers to work with, and it was too much time. Helped by a Barnett hands-to-the-face penalty, Rodgers moved his team 70 yards in seven plays, ending in an easy 19-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison, with nine seconds to spare. (The Eagles would finish the game with nine penalties for 93 yards, including four personal fouls, assessed by a shaky and indecisive Fred Bryant crew. Both coaches unsuccessfully challenged noncalls on pass interference, and both times, pass interference probably would have been the right call.)
Wentz and the Eagles weren’t done, though. Their first drive of the third quarter, they mixed runs and short passes expertly, Wentz finding Howard uncovered on a 20-yard TD pass. A two-point conversion pass failed.
It took Rodgers 3 minutes, 34 seconds to get Green Bay even. While getting blasted by a blitzing Bradham, Rodgers feathered a pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, who had run away from Sendejo (but then, who hasn’t), for the tying touchdown from 14 yards.
Ah, but that meant Wentz got the ball. He needed 4 minutes, 3 seconds — tsk, tsk, why so slow? — to put the Eagles ahead again. Howard’s third touchdown of the night, on a 2-yard run, made it 34-27 only 47 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Howard carried 15 times for 87 yards, and caught three passes for another 28. Sanders carried 11 times for 72 yards, and had no trouble holding onto the ball.
“The O-line should get the game ball,” Howard said, after his best game as an Eagle. “I feel like we’ve been pretty close to getting the run game going off, and tonight it happened.”
Wentz finished 16 for 27 for just 160 yards, but three touchdowns, and there were no Eagles turnovers, against the team that came in with the best turnover margin in the league. The Packers also came in with a dozen sacks but did not add to that total.
“We came in just wanting a balanced attack, just get rid of the ball early, and just play fast,” Wentz said. “Thursday night game, on the road, in Lambeau, a lot of things working against us this week, but to come in here and fight to the end, the defense coming up big at the end, a huge win for us.”
The Eagles have some time to heal before hosting the Jets Oct. 6.