LOS ANGELES — The Eagles shocked the world, if not themselves, and knocked off the Rams, 30-23, Sunday night to keep their postseason hopes alive. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles still have fight. To be fair, I thought they showed gumption in last week’s overtime loss to the Cowboys. And aside from maybe the loss in New Orleans, there hasn’t been any sign of players' mailing games in. But the Eagles, with steep postseason odds and a cross-country flight to face the explosive Rams on the card, could have packed it in this past week. Oh, and their starting quarterback was out with a fracture vertebra.
But they rallied around Nick Foles, as they’ve done before, and put forth their best effort of the season. It could be a case of too little, too late. But it’s better than having nothing left to play for. And stranger things — such as a backup quarterback winning Super Bowl MVP — have happened before. Even if the Eagles fall short, finishing the season with momentum could carry over into 2019. We saw something similar two years ago.
The 7-7 Eagles are still mathematically alive in the NFC East, but they would need to win their final two games and see the 8-6 Cowboys lose their final two, against the Buccaneers (5-9) and New York Giants (5-9), to secure first. That is the only scenario in which they can win the division. But there are nine scenarios in which the Eagles can claim a wild-card berth, and four don’t require beating both the Texans (10-4) next Sunday at home and the Redskins (7-7) on the road in the finale.
Their odds of making the playoffs jumped from 11 percent to 37 percent in one week, according to FiveThirtyEight. Here are the remaining schedules and the odds for the four other teams still in the wild-card hunt:
Seahawks (8-6, 96 pct.): vs. Chiefs (11-3), vs. Cardinals (3-11)
Vikings (7-6-1, 56 pct.): at Lions (5-9), vs. Bears (10-4)
Redskins (7-7, 11 pct.): at Titans (8-6), vs. Eagles (7-7)
Panthers (6-7, 5 pct.): Saints (11-2), Falcons (5-9), at Saints (11-2)
2. Nick Foles is a gamer. The Eagles, obviously, are lucky to have him. The decision to sign Foles as a backup two offseasons ago could end up being the best free-agent addition of the Doug Pederson-Howie Roseman era. Say what you want about Foles as a starter, but he’s got this backup thing down cold.
I think it’s something about his demeanor. It’s difficult to call him an underdog, considering his background and natural abilities, but Foles views himself that way and it gives him a little edge when he’s called upon. I think the thing he did best Sunday was to take what the Rams defense was giving and get the ball out on time. But he also took shots downfield when the situation called for it.
His second pass of the game was classic Foles. He dropped back on second-and-7, felt a little pressure and moved off his initial read, rolled to his right and hit tight end Dallas Goedert in stride so that he could pick up the first down after the catch. Foles is at his best, and he reiterated this after the game, when he doesn’t overthink his job. He wasn’t perfect. His red-zone interception in the fourth quarter could have been costlier than it was. But he did enough down the stretch to secure the win.
» MIKE SIELSKI: Nick Foles was at his best when the Eagles needed him most
3. Carson Wentz is still the quarterback of this team. I don’t know if Wentz will be back next week, but my gut says he’ll be out again. He did nothing on the field before the game, and Pederson had already said that he would need three months to recover. Could he play with the fracture? Probably. You can bet Wentz wants to.
But the Eagles have the big picture to consider, and with Foles stepping in without missing a beat, there is little reason to push the franchise quarterback back out there. The Eagles are still likely gathering more information on Wentz’s back.
There will be a rush to compare Foles to Wentz and to suggest that the Eagles are better off with the former, for whatever reason. Even if Foles were to pull off another miracle and lead the Eagles into the postseason — I can’t even consider the Super Bowl a possibility at this point — Wentz is still the future. He’s younger and better and has a much higher ceiling. When healthy last season, he was arguably the league’s MVP. He hasn’t looked quite like that guy this season, but he was coming off major knee surgery and was playing with a bad back for possibly a two-month stretch.
Could Wentz learn a thing or two by watching Foles? Sure. Wentz has been holding the ball a touch too long this season, and he’s been reluctant to trust his receivers downfield. Of course, his physical condition could have played a role in both cases. Is there concern about Wentz and the number of injuries he’s suffered the last four years? Absolutely. But as far as ability goes, the Eagles shouldn’t have major concerns as they approach the possibility of a contract extension this offseason.
4. Doug Pederson seems to call a better game with Foles than with Wentz. The Eagles coach said he didn’t change much within the offense to accommodate for Foles, but he said the same last postseason and there were notable alterations. He can say that because to the untrained eye there are only minor differences. But at this level, a tweak here and a tweak there are significant.
A review of the coach’s film will offer more information, but Pederson appeared to call plays that gave Foles a little less freedom than Wentz typically has. There were more progression reads rather than coverage reads. Receivers ran fewer routes that weren’t based upon leverage. This allowed for Foles to get the ball out more quickly, but also to take shots downfield with Alshon Jeffery (8 catches for 160 yards) as one of his first two reads.
Wentz likes to have more autonomy over his decisions. He wants more outs. But given his physical restrictions, he appeared to be taking fewer chances downfield and relied more on tight end Zach Ertz as his safety valve.
Pederson also helped Foles by sticking with the run, even when the results weren’t always there. The Eagles’ run-pass ratio in the first half was 16-14. It brought play action into the picture and kept the Rams defense on its toes. Pederson went more with “12” personnel, as many had suggested. For only the third time this season, Goedert played more than 60 percent of the snaps (39 of 64). That meant less of Golden Tate (22 snaps), but he still chipped in with five catches for 43 yards. Nelson Agholor played every snap but one, but finished with only one catch for eight yards. I’d cut into his playing time, not Goedert’s, to get Tate on the field more.
5. Jim Schwartz took Sean McVay to school. The Bears provided a blueprint for stopping the Rams' offensive attack, and Schwartz seemed to crib a few ideas from Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. There’s isn’t much science behind stopping the run. The Eagles knew they would have to keep Todd Gurley in check if they were to have any chance, and for the most part, they did (12 carries for 48 yards).
What I can’t understand is why McVay ran the ball so often in the early going. Didn’t he see whom the Eagles had in the secondary? Balance helped the Rams score a touchdown on their second possession, but their offense is built to strike fast, and those kinds of drives would have likely been too much for the Eagles to endure.
Nevertheless, Schwartz gets a boatload of credit for getting quarterback Jared Goff to fall prey to some bad habits. Goff struggled on several throws down the field. His accuracy was off, especially in the red zone where you must be precise. Receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, who each averaged more than 14 yards a catch entering the game, finished with only 9.8 and 10.6 yards a catch.
» READ MORE: Eagles shut down Todd Gurley, Rams’ potent attack
6. Avonte Maddox is going to be good. Pick any three positions — outside cornerback, slot corner, and free safety — and Maddox could start there. Moving him outside, after he missed the previous three games, was a stroke of genius.
With Sidney Jones out, the Eagles were once again severely shorthanded at cornerback. But rather than have De’Vante Bausby or Chandon Sullivan on the outside opposite Rasul Douglas, Schwartz started Maddox, left Corey Graham at deep safety, and played Cre’Von LeBlanc in the slot.
All three had their best games this season, but Maddox stood out. He had a third-down pass breakup on the Rams’ first drive, intercepted Goff with a diving scoop on their third drive, and had three tackles and another pass breakup. He was a difference-maker. Maddox’s versatility will likely give him a job in the NFL for years to come, but he could start at any of three positions next season.
7. The Eagles running backs were good enough. You have to give Wendell Smallwood credit. Just when you think he’s out, he’s pulls himself back into the frame. Smallwood has benefited from Corey Clement’s season-ending knee injury. And when Josh Adams was on and off the field with head and back injuries, he got more turns in the backfield.
But Duce Staley recognized that Smallwood was running downhill, and he played his most snaps (20) in five games. He rushed 10 times for 48 yards and scored two touchdowns. Adams was held in check and gained only 28 yards on 15 carries. But he did score the first of the Eagles’ three rushing touchdowns — the first time they’ve scored that many on the ground since 2016.
Darren Sproles was the third-down back and rushed three times for 30 yards, caught three passes for 16 yards, and picked up several blitzes. The Eagles don’t have a cow-bell running back, like Gurley, but they have enough by-committee.
8. Fletcher Cox outplayed Aaron Donald. It’s going to take a lot for someone to dethrone Donald as the NFL’s defensive player of the year. He’s been consistently great. But he was awfully silent for long stretches against the Eagles and finished with just two tackles and one quarterback hit.
Cox, on the other hand, was a menace throughout, even though he missed about a quarter to attend to a hip injury. The Eagles defensive tackle logged three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and two hits. One of those hits came when he tossed center John Sullivan to the ground with just one arm. Donald gets a lot of ink, and justifiably so, but Cox can be just as good.
9. Alshon Jeffery is alive. I broke down the numbers in my column on Jeffery off the game, but if you don’t want to click, here are his “deep” passing statistics in his first four games this season (10 targets, three catches, 73 yards, one touchdown), vs. his next five games (three targets, zero catches), vs. Sunday (three targets, three catches for 112 yards).
Wentz had gotten away from going to Jeffery, particularly on throws of more than 20 yards, and it hurt the offense. There’s no other way to say it. Jeffery is a special talent, and while he isn’t a burner, he has a knack for winning on 50-50 passes.
10. And a few leftovers: Jake Elliott giveth (he hit on 51-, 34- and 40-yard field goals), and he taketh away (missing a 53-yard attempt that would have clinched the game). … Cameron Johnston averaged 51.7 yards on three punts and somehow finished with a greater net average (52.3). He’s second in the NFL in both gross (48.5) and net (43.4) average. … Ertz tallied three catches for 22 yards and has 101 total receptions this season. He’s still on pace to surpass the NFL mark for catches in a season by a tight end (Jason Witten, 110).