As pandemic restrictions loosen, the Eagles allowed about 6,000 fans to watch them play at Lincoln Financial Field. What a show they got.
You can question the Eagles' talent. You can question their execution. But never question their heart.
The Birds were 10-point underdogs in a game they should have lost by 30. They played without five of their top six offensive linemen and lost another; without all three top receivers; without ascending tight end Dallas Geodert; and lost Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and top running back Miles Sanders during the game. They trailed, 17-0, at the half, and they trailed by 18 in the third quarter.
Still, they fought. And yes, they lost, 30-28, to the Baltimore Ravens, who are 5-1, and who look like the team that finished 2019 at 14-2, the best record in the league. Nevertheless, the Eagles had a chance to tie in the last two minutes. How?
“These guys battled their tails off today, and had a chance to win against a healthy, healthy football team,” coach Doug Pederson said. “I’m proud of these guys in the locker room.”
Should he be? Yes. Should we be? Yes. Will we? Pederson doesn’t think so.
“I know they’re going to get beat down this week. And that’s your job,” Pederson said. “I get it: There are no moral victories in the NFL. For this team to hang together on the sideline, to not point fingers, to battle, to be in this position with all the mistakes that were made in the first half ... ”
Actually, our job is not to “beat down” a team that played close to its potential. The Ravens have the best defense in the NFL. They have, in quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning MVP, the most dangerous player in the NFL. Our “job” is to accurately reflect occurrences as they happen in proper context. As such:
The Eagles played well enough to win against a vastly superior opponent. They’re 1-4-1, but a bad Giants team visits Thursday night. The NFC East is so bad that a 1-4-1 record makes the Eagles the No. 2 team in the division. The division leader, the Cowboys, rest their hopes on failed Packers coach Mike McCarthy and failed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Somehow, 1-4-1 isn’t the end of the world.
And the Eagles are growing.
A handful of appearances from backup quarterback Jalen Hurts late in the second quarter put the Ravens on their heels. He finished with two rushes for 23 yards and a 3-yard throw-back reception. The Birds got another eye-opening display from emerging receiver Travis Fulgham, who finished with six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. And, as usual, they fed off the competitive fire of their leader, Carson Wentz.
The franchise quarterback shook off six sacks and a fumble to go 21-for-40 for 213 yards, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions, along with five rushes for 49 yards, including a 40-yard, never-say-die sideline sprint that converted a second-and-16, as well as the 1-yard TD plunge that cut the Ravens' lead to 30-28. He was hit by the Ravens' defense 20 times, but he kept coming back.
“Carson played a heck of a football game,” Pederson said.
Wentz warranted a more fiery adjective for the miracle he nearly achieved.
It cannot be overstated how undermanned the Eagles were.
Age, injury, and COVID-19 protocols winnowed the Eagles’ roster of has-beens and might-never-bes, and much of that group seemed like they’d have rather been anywhere besides the Linc on a lovely, 65-degree fall afternoon. Three hours after kickoff, those 6,000 fans probably would have rather been somewhere else, too.
Even the Eagles' best moment looked awful. Midway through the third quarter, Miles Sanders broke a 74-yard run, but then fumbled near the goal line. JJ Arcega-Whiteside happened to fall on the ball in the end zone.
Sanders was injured on the run and left the game. Ertz left early in the fourth quarter. Of course they did.
The rest of the team compensated. Of course they did.
Maybe the Ravens didn’t give the Eagles their best effort. They were undisciplined -- 12 penalties, 132 yards -- and they were imperfect. But they dominated the Eagles, top to bottom, for much of the afternoon: The coach. The quarterback. The defense. The offensive line. The receivers. Even the kicker.
It looked like a rout early, the offense toothless, the defense flat-footed and flummoxed.
Jackson ripped off a 25-yard run on second-and-17 early in the second half, then popped for a 37-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, leaving linebackers -- and we use that term loosely -- Nate Gerry and Alex Singleton in his wake. Inexcusably, he finished with 108 rushing yards. For the first 40 minutes, the Eagles' offense was even worse.
Rookie speedster John Hightower dropped a bomb on the third play of the game, though he rebounded with a 50-yard snag late in the third quarter. Sanders dropped a touchdown catch late in the second quarter. Ertz failed to make two of the tough catches that sent him to the last three Pro Bowls.
Pederson wasn’t perfect, and he was typically reckless. He went for it on fourth-and-1 when a makeable field goal would have cut the score to 17-3. He failed. Pederson tried a two-point conversion with Hurts when a kick would have cut it to 17-7. It failed. Pederson also called a naked run for Wentz late in the first quarter. Wentz fumbled.
Yes, Wentz should have covered the ball better, but Wentz has a bad knee, a bad back, and mediocre speed; five years into his career, teams no longer fear his legs.
Pederson also asked Wentz to block for a run by Hurts — downfield, in traffic, just inches from being run over by Hurts and his tacklers.
Finally, when the Eagles needed a two-point conversion to tie, Pederson rushed in a questionable option play for Wentz. The Ravens diagnosed it and smothered it. Pederson seemed to regret the call.
Wentz wasn’t helped much early, but he didn’t help himself, either. He didn’t target Fulgham or No. 1 receiver Greg Ward until the 28th minute of the game. He threw high and wide often. But he persevered. By the end, the Eagles and their fans were wondering, “What if?”
The players, too.
“The resilience of this team is not something you can question,” Wentz said. “There’s a lot of good we can learn from. The fight. The effort. We can keep building with this.”
They seem close. Maybe a different play call on the late two-point conversion; maybe a different fourth-down decision earlier; maybe a better kick by Jake Elliott, whose wind-aided, 52-yard field goal drifted wide right at the end of the second quarter.
Yes, they’re a one-win team.
But they’re not losers.