ARLINGTON, Texas – The Eagles knew the stakes and battled till the end, but it wasn’t enough and they fell to the Cowboys, 29-23, in overtime Sunday.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles are (likely) toast. A win would have evened the scales with the Cowboys in the NFC East. But the Eagles are now two games back with three games to go and they’ve already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker, so unless something cataclysmic happens, the division is lost.
The Eagles can point to the fact that of their seven losses, six have been by only one score, but that amounts to little in the NFL. They aren’t a very good team, and it’s been evident since the preseason. They did enough to support the notion that they could rebound enough to make the playoffs, and then, who knows?
The odds of clinching a wild card, at this point, are more realistic, if you’re into suffering for three more weeks. The website FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Eagles a 13 percent chance of claiming one of the two spots. A lot must occur, but stranger things have happened.
Here’s a look at the remaining schedules for the most prominent NFC wild-card contenders, assuming the Cowboys and Bears win their respective divisions (the Rams and Saints have already won theirs):
- Seahawks (7-5): vs. Vikings (6-5-1), at 49ers (3-10), vs. Chiefs (11-2), vs. Cardinals (3-10)
- Vikings (6-5-1): at Seahawks (7-5), vs. Dolphins (7-6), at Lions (5-8), vs. Bears (9-4)
- Panthers (6-7): Saints (11-2), Falcons (4-9), at Saints (11-2)
- Eagles (6-7): at Rams (11-2), vs. Texans (9-4), at Redskins (6-7)
- Redskins (6-7): at Jaguars (4-9), at Titans (7-6), vs. Eagles (6-7)
- Packers (5-7-1): at Bears (9-4), at New York Jets (4-9), vs. Lions (5-8)
As you can see, the task is daunting, especially with a road date in Los Angeles looming. You might have turned the page on the season, and few would argue with that mindset. The Eagles’ season was Sunday, and they failed to deliver in nearly all the same ways they previously came up short. It’s been like a broken record.
2. The offense is systemically flawed. For the 10th time this season, the Eagles failed to score in the first quarter. But they didn’t stop there. They were shut out in the first 30 minutes and by halftime had generated only four first downs and 70 total yards. The Eagles simply couldn’t sustain drives. Dallas has a strong defense, but it’s not schematically a complicated one.
But Carson Wentz and the offense looked confounded for long stretches. Doug Pederson’s play-calling didn’t help. Balance had helped the unit in the previous two games, but there were signs that it wouldn’t be sustainable. The Eagles just don’t have that kind of ground game, and when they faced long third downs on their first two drives, they couldn’t convert. Pederson’s call on third-and-1 on the third possession – a Wentz option – was a peculiar one vs. a speed defense. Wentz just hasn’t been as effective with his legs this season (more on that later), and having him run to the short side on that play did him no favors.
Overall, though, Pederson has seemed incapable of adjusting to unexpected defensive schemes. Center Jason Kelce told reporters after the game that Dallas came out and defended differently from the way it had in recent games and in the first meeting. A review of the coach’s film will provide a clearer answer, but a first-half donut was more than enough evidence.
3. Doug Pederson has called games on his heels all season. I’m still thinking that maybe the Eagles coach will pull off his mask, Scooby Doo-style, to reveal that he’s been Chip Kelly all this season. What happened to “FEARLESS” Doug Pederson?
I’ve written about his tepidness for months, but the sequence after the Eagles came back once again with less than two minutes left in the game was surprising because he had done the opposite before. A Jake Elliott extra point knotted the score, 23-23, but there was a Dallas personal foul that would have given the Eagles the ball at the 1-yard line had they chosen to go for two. A year ago, something similar happened against the Panthers in the first half, and Pederson opted to go for two and was successful. He said then that he would have done the same had it been the fourth quarter.
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I get that the circumstances aren’t entirely similar, and that this year’s offense isn’t last year’s, but the Eagles had one yard to take the lead on the road with little time left on the clock. The offense was finally in rhythm, and I doubt that many would have objected to the gamble. But Pederson turtled up and played for overtime. His defense responded, but the Eagles lost the coin flip and Wentz and the offense never saw the ball again. I think the odds that the Eagles would have succeeded on the two-point conversion were greater than heads or tails.
4. NFL officiating continues to be suspect. There’s something fundamentally flawed with the system when the Eagles somehow aren’t awarded the ball after Pederson’s challenge on the opening kick. Let’s forget for a moment that the officials on the field missed Malcolm Jenkins’ forced fumble. How on earth could it be ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence as to who recovered when Kamu Grugier-Hill came up with the ball and handed it to an official?
The review went back to New York and the geniuses there decided that there wasn’t enough video confirmation. I saw about a dozen replays and more still photography on my social media feeds that said otherwise. Isn’t there a place for common sense here? I’m not suggesting that the Eagles lost because of this oversight, because they shot themselves in the foot more than enough to claim otherwise, but for a team that has struggled to score early, it was a blow.
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5. The Golden Tate trade was a bust. There’s an argument to be made that the trade-deadline deal for Tate has hurt the Eagles offense more than it’s helped. The receiver certainly played a significant role in the win over the Redskins last week, but he has been virtually a non-factor in the other four games he’s played, and has taken snaps away from the underutilized Dallas Goedert.
It’s hard to fault Tate for his relative ineffectiveness. Pederson and Mike Groh deserve a lot of blame for failing to find ways to get a perennial 90-catch receiver involved in the offense. On Sunday, he caught one of three targets for three yards. He played only 20 of 52 snaps, but the Eagles figured out (too late) that their two-tight-end package was more effective than their three-receiver set.
Many questioned the trade after it was made – the compensation (a third-rounder), the fit (with Nelson Agholor playing a similar position), and the optimism of it (did the Eagles really think they had the goods to make a run?) – and they would be proven right. The Eagles entertained the idea of sending a first-round pick to Oakland for receiver Amari Cooper. I’m not sure if I would have pulled the trigger, either, and you could still make a valid claim that the short-term gains won’t offset the long-term pains, but the Cowboys probably aren’t going to the playoffs without Cooper.
6. Carson Wentz isn’t yet himself. I wrote my column off the game on Wentz and made the argument that he hasn’t been good enough this season. He’s not the primary reason the Eagles won’t repeat this year. There are plenty of fingers to point. But he has regressed as this season has progressed.
He’s looked tentative. He’s been staring down receivers. He’s been ineffective down the field. And more than anything, he hasn’t looked as mobile. Wentz must win with his arm, but the ability to extend plays just hasn’t been there this season. Maybe it was foolish to expect him to return to pre-injury form in less than 12 months. The one-year anniversary of Wentz’s tearing ligaments in his left knee is Monday.
But he looked nimble in his first game back against the Colts, and has flashed those talents from time to time. His numbers have been impressive. He is completing 70 percent of his passes and has tossed 21 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. But he’s also had six fumbles. He’s been taking sacks after holding the ball too long. And he’s come up short often in clutch situations. I believe that Wentz will be one of the elite NFL quarterbacks for the next decade, but he’s still very much a work in progress.
7. Injuries are killing the defense. Jim Schwartz’s unit was without six starters: end Derek Barnett, tackle Tim Jernigan, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby, and safety Rodney McLeod. And yet, the Eagles held the Cowboys to six first-half points and three came on a 62-yard field goal.
But there were too many injuries, ultimately, to overcome. Cornerback Sidney Jones re-aggravated his hamstring strain and was in and out of the lineup. Give the kid credit for playing through pain, but he was clearly less than 100 percent and Dak Prescott kept exploiting him. Rasul Douglas played his butt off, and was the star of the first half with six tackles and an interception. But the corner has liabilities in coverage.
De’Vante Bausby and Cre’Von LeBlanc gave it their all, but they’re limited. Safety Corey Graham is running on fumes. The Eagles' defense played 99 snaps. Is it any wonder they allowed 576 yards and lost time of possession, 45:33 to 22:32?
8. Wendell Smallwood is dependable enough to have on the field in a crucial situation (said with eyeroll). That was Pederson’s essential response when he was asked why Smallwood received a handoff in the red zone in the fourth quarter. Smallwood didn’t log a carry two weeks ago, with Josh Adams and Corey Clement carrying the load on the ground. He didn’t get a touch the following week with Darren Sproles’ return.
So even if Pederson wanted to use the excuse that Clement’s game-ending knee injury forced Smallwood onto the field, it still makes little sense, unless Adams and Sproles were hurt. Adams (21 snaps) hadn’t touched the ball on the Eagles’ previous 13 plays over nearly three drives. Sproles rushed two plays prior, but it wasn’t as if he was playing a lot (22 snaps). It looked as if Wentz had checked to a run on Smallwood’s lone tote, but he later said that it was a called run on second-and-goal at the Dallas 11.
Duce Staley is responsible for the running-back rotation, but Pederson and Groh are the supervisors. They, ultimately, should be held accountable for his insertion and usage.
9. Michael Bennett might be the only truly successful offseason move. The defensive end notched his team-high 7 1/2 sack, forced a fumble, and had a tackle for loss, five quarterback hits and seven total tackles. He was a force and has consistently been one for most of the season. Fletcher Cox was almost as special. He recorded a sack and four hits and pushed the pocket, despite getting double-teamed a bunch. I thought Brandon Graham played well also, despite not popping up much in the stat totals. He drew three holding penalties.
But the lack of depth up front has hurt that unit, particularly inside. Haloti Ngata has been a bust as a free-agent signing. The next big play he makes will be his first this season. And Treyvon Hester and Bruce Hector simply aren’t good enough to take advantage of all the one-on-one situations Cox affords them. The Eagles must do some remodeling up front, but of all their units, the D-line has been the most effective this season.
10. And a few leftovers: Elliott missed another extra point. He can’t keep missing freebies. This one hurt. … Cameron Johnston for team MVP? The Eagles punter flipped the field and dropped three punts inside the 20. … Zach Ertz (five catches for 38 yards) eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving (1,016) for the first time in his career.