LANDOVER, Md. – The Eagles took care of business, manhandled the Redskins, 24-0, and watched as the Bears beat the Vikings to give them the last NFC playoff spot Sunday.
Win, lose or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles are playing with house money. When you’re the defending champions, there are certain expectations. Maybe now isn’t the time to reflect on the season, but the preseason narratives about complacency vs. embracing the target bore some truth. There were other reasons, obviously, for the Eagles’ sluggish trudge through most of the first three months. Injuries, of course, were a factor. But it was almost as if they were waiting for their backs to be really against the wall before they started to play as they did last year. There is no tangible proof. If it weren’t for the Bears, the Eagles’ season would be over. They’re not a great team like last year’s squad, even if they won five of their last six games. But they’re starting to play like one, and can reach that level over the next month. The task is tall. And there is little point in looking past Chicago, who the Eagles will face Sunday at 4:40 p.m. But few expected them to be playing into January after the Saints pasted them a month and a half ago. Few thought that a postseason berth was possible three weeks ago when they fell in overtime to the Cowboys. But the Eagles won three in a row, had outside help, and are in the tournament, as they like to say. Anything’s possible at this point. They seem to believe it.
2. Nick Foles should be the quarterback through the playoffs – even if Carson Wentz is cleared to return. There’s no turning back now, unless Foles can’t play. Doug Pederson said Monday that he can. He didn’t go into much detail about what tests of Foles' ribs revealed, but he said he was “clear.” Foles will be sore, just as he was last week. But getting the late Sunday slot against the Bears should help a little in his recovery. The educated guess here is that Wentz is done for the season, even if the Eagles keep him active. And even if he’s healthy, he won’t dress. It would be a tough decision to make, because Wentz is (duh) better than Nate Sudfeld. What if Foles were to get hurt? But having the franchise quarterback as the backup wouldn’t be a good look. It’s been nearly three weeks since Wentz was diagnosed with a fractured vertebra. Pederson initially speculated that he would need three months to recover, but he later said that was probably an overestimate. Wentz hasn’t practiced since. I’m going to avoid the Wentz-or-Foles long-term argument for now. But short-term, the choice is clear. The Eagles are on a roll with their new quarterback, just as they were last year, however the difference. Foles hasn’t been perfect. He’s tossed an ugly interception in each game. But the Eagles rebounded each time, and he has been otherwise great. The offense has jumped out to early leads – something they rarely did with Wentz. Foles has effectively utilized top receiver Alshon Jeffery – something Wentz struggled to do for weeks. And the Eagles have just looked better overall with Foles under center.
3. Doug Pederson has benefited from the return of Nick Foles. Is Pederson a better play caller with Foles? I don’t know. He had a pretty great 13-game run with Wentz last season. And you can’t discount the ineffectiveness of the offense with Foles in the first two games this season. But there has been more rhythm over the last three weeks. The sample isn’t yet large enough, and the Eagles will be tested by a top-notch defense in Chicago. But I think there’s something to be said for the Pederson-Foles chemistry. They’ve known and worked with each other longer. Pederson has a better understanding of Foles’ strengths and weaknesses. And Foles doesn’t have much say over scheme and game planning, nor do I think he wants it. Pederson said that he had made the decision to cut down on pre-snap motions even before the Eagles had known about Wentz’s injury, which tells me that he had decided to take some control back from his starter. Wentz wants the full palate of information on most plays. He wants to be like a coordinator on the field. And I think, long-term, that will be the model for success. But as good as he was, considering the injuries, there was something missing. Wentz has a high ceiling. He has the talent to be an elite quarterback in the NFL for over a decade. But watching Foles again in the postseason, no matter how much it’s killing Wentz – and can you imagine having to experience another playoff run from the sidelines? – could benefit him in the long run as strange as that sounds.
4. Doug Pederson has done a phenomenal job over the last month and a half. I was critical of Pederson’s performance both in-game and as a CEO head coach. His messaging had been awkward and mind-boggling since after the Super Bowl, and he had seemed unprepared in handling the Eagles’ new role as top dogs. He took his foot off the gas during the spring and in training camp when, maybe, he should have taken the opposite approach. But when the Eagles appeared to be out of the race, and no one was giving them a shot, something changed. Pederson eased up again, but this time it made more sense. He gave them off on Thanksgiving even though they had been blasted by the Saints four days earlier. He’s given them off on four straight Tuesdays, and downscaled Wednesday’s practices to just walkthroughs. Some coaches may have ramped it up. Pederson read the pulse of his team and eased off. It has worked. His play calling and game management have been better, too. He’s back to being aggressive, but the calls have made sense, too. The Eagles were five for five on fourth downs the last two games. With the Redskins offense incapable of moving the ball, Pederson went conservative. There was balance and short, high-percentage throws. The Eagles held the ball for nearly 45 minutes. Washington never stood chance. On Black Monday, Adam Gase became the last of the seven 2016 head coaching hires, aside from Pederson, to be fired. Pederson is 29-19 in the regular season, 3-0 in the postseason, and is back in the playoffs for the second year in a row.
» TIME OF POSSESSION: Eagles played keep-away, dominated Redskins and the clock
5. Jim Schwartz will likely get some bites for head coaching openings. With eight openings already, there are sure to be plenty of interview opportunities. Schwartz met with the Cardinals last year, so they may want to meet with him again after they fired Steve Wilks. I don’t know if he’s going to be a hot commodity. It’s been five years since he was fired as the Lions head coach. Maybe that’s the amount of time he needed to be away, or maybe he’s at a point of no return. But with so many vacancies, if doesn’t happen now, it may never. Schwartz is still only 52. He’s a good defensive coach. He’s smart. He knows how the handle big-picture responsibilities. He’s a little rough around the edges, and lacks an element of emotional intelligence, but an NFL owner could do worse. He’s done a good job of maximizing his talent this season. There have been some dubious calls, and several fourth quarter/overtime meltdowns. But the Eagles are still alive partly because Schwartz somehow patched together a beat up secondary (more on that later) and made it work. The Redskins offense was a wreck. But the Eagles made sure they had no hope. They recorded their first shutout of the Schwartz era and first since 2014. They held Washington to just 89 yards, eight first downs and zero third down conversions. That’s impressive no matter the opponent.
6. Fletcher Cox has shined brightest in big games. That is the mark of an elite player. Cox recorded 6½ sacks in December and three alone Sunday against the Redskins. He finished the season with 10½ – the first time he’s been in double digits. Cox wanted to eclipse that barrier because he knows it’s often the barometer for discussion of great d-linemen, particularly for interior guys. But Cox’s greatness is hardly about numbers (although it should be noted that he finished with 34 quarterback hits, second to only Aaron Donald’s 41). He didn’t have a strong complement inside for most of the season. Michael Bennett (nine sacks this season) and Brandon Graham rushed from inside on occasion, but none of the other tackle options came close to matching Tim Jernigan’s production last year. If the Eagles are to beat the Bears, Cox will likely need to have another strong game, even if he’s doubled most of the time.
» MARCUS HAYES: Defense pitches rare shutout, surges into playoffs
7. The Eagles aren’t in the postseason without a turnaround on the offensive line. The Eagles o-line wasn’t necessarily bad earlier in the season, but it was inconsistent. Injuries were a problem. But the tackle play, more than anywhere else, was an issue. Jason Peters and Lane Johnson were giving up more than usual. But they rebounded, particularly Johnson, who seemed to get better after ankle and knee injuries. He’s had to face DeMarcus Lawrence, J.J. Watt and Ryan Kerrigan in three of the last four weeks and he more than held his own. Johnson’s task doesn’t get much easier Sunday. Khalil Mack is about as good an edge rusher as there is in the NFL. Johnson had his hands full last season when they met in a Week 16 matchup between the Eagles and Raiders. Mack was held without a sack, but he did record four tackles and a quarterback hit.
8. The Eagles can survive with a patchwork secondary. Jim Schwartz had his work cut out for him, particularly in mid-November when his defensive backfield briefly consisted of Chandon Sullivan, De’Vante Bausby, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Corey Graham. The former two are gone, but the latter two remain, along with outside cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox, and, of course, safety Malcolm Jenkins. It’s not an ideal lineup. But LeBlanc has solidified the nickel spot. Graham has recovered from some brain freeze moments earlier in the season. Douglas has been a sure tackler and strong on balls in front of him. Maddox has been a jack of all trades. And Jenkins has been his typical steady self. Could it all fall apart in Chicago? Maybe. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky isn’t without his faults. The Bears employ a balanced attack, but have several receiving options that could give the Eagles’ coverage problems. But if the pass rush stays consistent, the back end should compete. It’s only gotten better with each week.
9. Jeffrey Lurie is a good owner. I bring this up now because Sunday only illustrated the differences between a struggling franchise like the Redskins and a thriving one like the Eagles. Daniel Snyder has taken one of the preeminent teams in the NFL and turned it into a laughingstock. There once was a time when there was a waiting list to get season tickets at FedEx Field. But areas in the nosebleeds have long been covered to account for the poor numbers and Sunday had to be embarrassing with Eagles fans taking over the stadium. How embarrassing? Who knows: Synder hasn’t spoken publicly about the team in over five years. That’s a disgrace. Lurie isn’t as accessible as he once was, but he answers questions about the state of the Eagles at least once a year, and usually more. In his 25 seasons as owner, the Eagles have gone to the postseason 14 times. They’ve won a Super Bowl and eight division titles, and played in two Super Bowls and six conference championships. The Redskins, in Snyder’s 20 years, have gone to the postseason just five times. They haven’t advanced further than the divisional round and have yet to win more than 10 games in a season. Lurie has made his share of mistakes. But he’s taken the Eagles and turned it into a model franchise. It could be far worse. If you need evidence, just look down I-95 to the nation’s capital.