The Eagles lost, 24-14, to the defending champions, but the schism between the two teams felt wider than the 10-point margin suggested. The officials missed a few calls that would have benefitted the Eagles (an offensive lineman running 20-yards downfield before the ball was thrown, for instance), but they also missed ones that would have aided the Seawhaks (Josh Huff's fumble being one). The officiating had no real bearing on the outcome. The Eagles simply ran into a wall and they had no answers for getting around or over it. Here's what we learned:
1. This was a measuring stick and he Eagles came up short. Chip Kelly and the Eagles preferred to stay away from "measuring stick" questions after the game, and who could blame them? They faced the NFL's best defense, ten days after they delivered their best game, and came up woefully short. It wouldn't mean as much had the Eagles beaten the Packers or the Cardinals or the 49ers in previous weeks, but they're now 1-4 against NFC teams currently with winning records. They were two plays shy of beating San Fran and Arizona, but they were thoroughly dominated by Green Bay and Seattle. I think the Eagles could contend with the Packers at home in the playoffs, but that isn't likely to happen with Green Bay headed to a No. 1 or 2 seed. The Seahawks, who have won three in a row, could falter down the stretch with tough divisional games against the 49ers, Cards and Rams, but two of three are at home where they are near automatic. They seem destined to secure one of the top two seeds and the Eagles would have to go through Seattle in the postseason … if they get there
2. The season is pretty much on the line Sunday vs. the Cowboys. Yep, the Eagles are far from guaranteed a playoff spot. The good news is they control their own destiny and Kelly's teams have proven to be resilient. If they take care of Dallas on Sunday night they have a one-game divisional lead in the loss column, but they would also hold head-to-head and in-division record tiebreakers. As long as they win one of their final two games against the Redskins or Giants, the Eagles would win the NFC East and have at least a home first round game. But they have to handle their business against a Cowboys team that will be rested after beating the Bears on Thursday night. That wasn't the case on Thanksgiving. The Eagles thoroughly whipped the Cowboys in Dallas, so I don't think conditioning played a major factor, but Tony Romo was clearly not himself. He had a week in between the Eagles-Bears games and played significantly better than he had on Thanksgiving. Will that provide the difference? I'm not sure, but I can't see the Eagles winning in another blowout. If they lose, then they may need help. The Cowboys still have the Colts left on the slate, a game they could certainly lose. A wild card berth, even with wins in the final two games, isn't a forgone conclusion with the 10-3 Cards and 9-4 Lions victors on Sunday.
3. A quarterback should be priority No. 1 this offseason. I'm not sure the Eagles would have fared much better with Nick Foles at quarterback, but there are certain throws he can make from the pocket that Mark Sanchez simply can't on a consistent basis. He's younger, has more upside and has a year left on his contract. Foles will more than likely be back next season. I wouldn't count Sanchez out in terms of leading the Eagles to the playoffs. He didn't perform well against the Seahawks (10 of 20 for 96 yards and two touchdowns with one interception), but he was not alone in that regard. Better quarterbacks have been a shell of themselves (Peyton Manning anyone?) against that defense. But if we're looking ahead -- and yes, I understand it's premature with three games remaining – the Eagles have to acquire another quarterback this offseason, preferably one they believe can be the long-term starter under Kelly. Bring back Foles. Heck, bring back Sanchez as insurance (although he may have better options elsewhere), but get a hand picked, young quarterback in the system that Kelly can develop. And no fourth round gambles like Matt Barkley that may crap out. (I say all this fully understanding that aside from Marcus Mariota, there might not be that type of talent in the draft).
4. A cornerback should be No. 2. There aren't many Richard Sherman types hanging from trees to pluck, but it should be noted the Seahawks selected the best cornerback in the game in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. The Eagles selected Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round and he has been active for only a few games this season. This isn't to pick on Watkins, but merely to suggest that the odds of selecting a starting-caliber corner are far greater in the first and second rounds than in the later ones. The Eagles had the opportunity to draft Darqueze Dennard or Bradley Roby in the first round instead of Marcus Smith, but passed. They may have had their reasons, and Dennard and Roby's long-term prospects are cloudy, but both have been contributors to their teams as rookies. Bradley Fletcher is in the last year of his contract and is unlikely to return. The best you can say about him is that he is inconsistent. He actually played one of his better games on Sunday, and the pass interference penalty he drew in the third quarter could have gone either way in my opinion, but the Eagles need to stop getting their defensive backs from the bargain bin. Broncos corner Chris Harris will be a free agent in the offseason. He has been one of the best this year. He might not fit the Eagles' specifications for size (he's 5-10, 190 pounds), but there are still plenty of smaller, shifty receivers on the outside to defend and they have given Fletcher and the Eagles fits all season.
5. Safety, again, needs to be addressed. Malcolm Jenkins is fine. He's not the Pro Bowler some were claiming after the first six games of the season, but with a suitable complement at the other safety spot, he can get the job done. But he had a rough day against the Seahawks, and while Nate Allen has bounced back from the Cardinals debacle, he lacks the necessary playmaking skills the defense needs out of the safety position. Kelly obviously has the same opinion of the position as Andy Reid. Don't spend much money on it. But the Eagles continue to strike out in drafting safety prospects (Earl Wolff and Ed Reynolds the last two years) and will likely need to acquire another through free agency this offseason.
6. LeSean McCoy needed to deliver and didn't. Was there something wrong with the grass? I counted at least five times that McCoy slipped on carries on Sunday. He said he played one of his worst games and took total blame for his third quarter fumble. It was costly. But Kelly and the offensive line deserve their share of culpability for the run game woes (21 rushes for 50 yards). You can lump Brent Celek in there, as well. He didn't have one of his better run blocking games. Kelly pushed the tempo early, but the Seahawks were ready and McCoy never got into a groove. I have to watch the tape to see what exactly went wrong, but I thought the coach got away from the run a touch too early. McCoy's first cousin died in a car crash on Friday and he alluded to not being mentally all there as a result. McCoy and his cousin were around the same age and they once lived under the same roof. They were very close. This isn't to excuse his performance, but to give all the facts. He set the Eagles' all-time rushing mark, passing Wilbert Montgomery when he hit 48 yards in the third quarter, but it was small consolation when all he could gain was two yards the rest of the way.
7. Riley Cooper has to do more than just block. Cooper is an above average blocker. He did a nice job on the touchdown bubble screen to Jeremy Maclin in the first quarter. But are No. 2 outside receivers, ones that make $5 million a year, more valuable as blockers than receivers? I tried to answer that question in my column for the newspaper. If the Eagles wanted a receiver that can block, why not just sign an offensive lineman for the league minimum and throw him outside to slaughter cornerbacks all game? It's a comment said in jest, but Kelly's fascination with Cooper continues to boggle the mind. The problem with cutting into Cooper's snaps is that the Eagles don't have a better alternative unless they want to shift slot receiver Jordan Matthews outside. Huff isn't ready. He can't get open downfield. And he hasn't been trustworthy with the ball in his hands. Cooper's receiving deficiencies haven't hindered the Eagles for most of the season because Maclin has been so good and because they have other weapons. But with Sherman keeping Maclin in check, Kelly needed his other receivers to step up. With Sanchez a part of the problem, they didn't.
8. Darren Sproles has been underutilized. The Eagles ran only 45 plays on offense vs. Seahawks, so Sproles' low number of touches (four carries for no yards) weren't a complete surprise. But he wasn't targeted once in the passing game. Kelly must not have liked the matchups, but it seemed coming in that Sproles was one of the Eagles' better options. He has had an impact in nearly every game, but his offensive touches have been decreasing. He averaged 7.9 touches in his first seven games, 4.6 in his last five. Kelly made the right decision leaning more on McCoy in the run game even through his struggles, but Sproles has value as a pass catcher out of the backfield and the Eagles have been unable to capitalize on that advantage. He has only 15 catches over the last eight games, but is averaging only 6.6 yards per reception.
9. Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks should get extensions next offseason. Aside from maybe Russell Wilson and Sherman, Cox was the best player on the field. He dominated the Seahawks up front and was the main reason Marshawn Lynch (23 carries for 86 yards) was kept in check for most of the game. He also got into the backfield several times, but Wilson proved too elusive – for almost everyone except Kendricks. The linebacker has blossomed in DeMeco Ryans' absence. He covers ground like few inside linebackers in the league. With Cox and Kendricks, the Eagles have two core players up front they should continue to build the defense around. Both players are deserving of contract extensions as they head into their fourth seasons.