The Eagles can argue that they’ve had it pretty rough this season.
They waited to get Carson Wentz back in their third game, then lost him again after their 13th. They have been, for various stretches, without Alshon Jeffery, Jordan Hicks, Corey Clement, Jay Ajayi, Mike Wallace, Timmy Jernigan, Darren Sproles, Derek Barnett, and most of their starting secondary. They learned just how valuable Frank Reich and John DeFilippo had been in their roles as advisers and counselors to Doug Pederson and Wentz.
That’s all true. That’s all fine. But that’s not everything, and that’s not why they are where they are at the moment: 8-7, needing, if they are to qualify for the NFL playoffs, not only to win their game Sunday against the Redskins but to have the Chicago Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings.
“We dug this hole,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Early in the year, there were games that we didn’t finish, but we’re finishing games right now. I just feel like we’ve got a pretty good momentum right now, and we just need to keep it coming.”
Of course, even if the Eagles keep that momentum coming, they might be going home anyway, which gets to the plump euphemism that Cox used: games we didn’t finish.
That’s certainly one way to describe the Eagles’ two most egregious losses this season. Another way would be to say that they were games that the Eagles should have won. And yet another way would be to say that they were games in which the Eagles inexplicably and inexcusably collapsed and, in doing so, frittered away their margin for error this season.
The first of those games was a 26-23 loss to the Titans in Nashville on Sept. 30, when the Eagles blew a 17-3 second-half lead and allowed Tennessee to convert three fourth downs on an overtime touchdown drive.
The second was a 21-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 21. In that one, the Eagles led, 17-0, at Lincoln Financial Field with 11 minutes left in regulation. Given the incredible advantage that the Eagles are supposed to have when playing on their home field, one would think defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could have plucked 11 fans at random from the Linc’s stands, lined them up in a prevent scheme, and protected a three-score fourth-quarter lead. One would think.
The mere mention of those losses surely torments Eagles fans as if they were ants under a magnifying glass on a sunny day, but they’re worth bringing up because the Eagles are still feeling the repercussions.
Had the Eagles won one of those two, they’d be 9-6 and, in all likelihood, already preparing for the postseason. Had they won both, they’d be 10-5, a record more in line with what the prevailing preseason expectations had been for them. Despite that succession of injuries, they were good enough to win both of those games, and those losses are worth bringing up ahead of Sunday’s regular-season finale because they’re a reminder of just how favorable circumstances were for the Eagles when the season began.
Considering the overall depth of the NFC, the easiest way for the Eagles to return to the playoffs was always to win the NFC East again. After they won their first five intradivisional games in 2017 and rolled to a 13-3 overall record and a Super Bowl victory, there was little to suggest that they couldn’t or wouldn’t repeat that domination. If anything, their rivals appeared willing to hand them the division again this year and for years to come, based on their decision-making.
The Cowboys provided Dak Prescott perhaps the worst collection of receivers in the NFL. The Giants, holding the No. 2 pick in the draft, passed up the chance to either acquire a new franchise quarterback or hoard picks. Instead, they recommitted to Eli Manning. The irony of the offseason was that it was the Redskins, that longtime NFL laughingstock, who made maybe the most sensible move to keep up with the Eagles. Yes, they let Kirk Cousins walk away, but they at least traded for Alex Smith, a reliable, stabilizing presence at quarterback.
For a good while, those three teams’ seasons played out exactly as one would have expected. The Giants were never going to be good, and they weren’t, losing seven of their first eight games. The Cowboys were 3-4, and – based in large part on the Eagles’ own 3-4 start, which was based on those two ugly losses – they gambled that sacrificing a first-round pick for Amari Cooper would be enough to win them the division. (Guess what. It was.) And the Redskins were 6-3 with Smith before he suffered that horrific broken leg against the Houston Texans on Nov. 18.
“You lose consistency as far as how you approach the game, how you approach the week every day in practice,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “He brings a consistency, a professionalism, that’s hard to replace.”
The Redskins’ season crumbled after Smith’s injury. They’re now 7-8, back to being the same Redskins they always are. You could say that they fell apart just in time for the Eagles, but that’s not really true. The timing might not matter. The Eagles are still depending on the kindness of strangers, and if they win Sunday and still don’t get into the playoffs, they’re going to rue the opportunity they squandered this season, and they should.