The Eagles spotted the Cowboys 21 points, made an impressive comeback by scoring the next 24 points, but folded in the fourth quarter and lost a pivotal NFC East clash, 38-27, on Sunday night. The bad news: They no longer control their own destiny. The good news: They're still very much in the playoff picture. Here's what we learned:
1. The playoffs are in doubt, but still very much in play. The Eagles coughed up first place in the division, but they still hold the tiebreaker advantage (division record) if they win out and Dallas loses once. So if they beat the Redskins on Saturday and at the Giants in the season finale, and if the Cowboys lose one of their remaining two games (hosting the Colts on Sunday and then traveling to Washington), the Eagles are in. I don't think it's that far-fetched of a scenario. The Eagles are clearly better than their final two opponents (although sweeping the season series is always a difficult task in the NFC East; see: last night). The Cowboys will be slight favorites over Indianapolis in Dallas, but they've had little home advantage at Jerry World. The Eagles need a little "Luck" (pardon my pun), but it can happen. If they can't win the division, their playoff chances drop significantly because the 0-4 Seahawks and 10-4 Packers all hold the tiebreaker (head-to-head) for a Wild Card berth. The Eagles and 10-4 Lions have not played this season, so the next tiebreaker is conference record. If Detroit loses their final two games (at the 5-8 Bears, at Green Bay) and the Eagles win their final two, well then they get a Wild Card nod. But if the Lions go 1-1 -- and both teams finish 11-5 -- they would own the tiebreaker (a 9-3 conference record vs. the Eagles' 8-4 mark). So the Eagles would need the Lions, Seahawks or Packers to go 0-2, coupled with their two wins, to clinch a Wild Card. Stranger things have happened.
2. Mark Sanchez was never going to magically turn into a franchise quarterback. The Eagles paid Sanchez $2.5 million for one season to be their backup to Nick Foles. They have gone 3-3 with him as the starter, including his substitution win over the Texans when Foles broke his collarbone. A .500 mark for a backup sounds about right. Sanchez has had his moments, has shown that he can operate the up-tempo offense with more efficiency than Foles had prior to his injury, but hasn't made a strong case that he is a better alternative. Chip Kelly and the Eagles offense has certainly help to mask some of the Sanchez' flaws, most notably, an inability to make accurate passes downfield. But he has played pretty much as he did for the New York Jets. He continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate (11 turnovers in seven games) with some coming at the most inopportune of times (see: his third quarter interception). There was optimism after the Panthers and Cowboys wins because many didn't see a "franchise" quarterback in Foles after his regression this season. He likely isn't the answer if you were hoping for another Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or even Russell Wilson. But there aren't many of those guys. And Sanchez' long resume had too many blemishes for anyone to expect a long-term answer.
3. Foles will clearly regain his job, but a return for Saturday's game seems a stretch. I still haven't gotten a straight answer on exactly when the Eagles will get the word on Foles' checkup. "The afternoon" was as specific as it got. Kelly speaks with us at 1 p.m. I don't expect him to have an update if Foles has been cleared to return to practice. Even if Foles has been given the go-ahead, I'm not sure that means he'll start against the Redskins. His collarbone needs to be fully healed. "More than healed" was how one source put it. Foles could go out and play and not have the collarbone affect him, but if he takes another hit to the area and the bone isn't completely healed, he could re-injure it even further and need surgery. No one wants that. Foles won't be the savior, but he gives the Eagles their best chance. Eagles players supported Sanchez after the game, but there was off-the-record grumbling about missed opportunities. I asked Jeremy Maclin if there were chances deep and he hemmed and hawed until he said that there weren't. I still have to watch the all-22, but I clearly saw receivers running free in the secondary on occasion. I asked LeSean McCoy if he had any sense if Foles would be cleared today. "I don't know if he is," McCoy said. "Hopefully, he is. I don't know for sure." If not, I followed up, are the Eagles prepared to ride Sanchez? "We feel good about Mark," McCoy said. "I don't think the whole game is on Mark." I don't think the Eagles would have beaten the Packers and Seahawks with Foles. He would have given them a better chance, but those were butt-whippings. But I'm no so certain about the Cowboys game. The Eagles had opportunities deep. I can't see Foles taking his finger off the trigger in those circumstances.
4. Bill Davis should do Bradley Fletcher a favor and either bench him or stop leaving him out to dry. We've seen enough of Fletcher to know what he is. We saw enough last season and began asking Davis and Kelly about trying someone else outside. Brandon Boykin was the obvious choice, and was so early this season, but he hasn't been reliable in the slot for the last few months. Nolan Carroll deserves a shot. There's a chance he may be just as ineffective as Fletcher. But, really, how can he be much worse? Fletcher is a try-hard cornerback with solid technique. But when his technique isn't sound and he's going up against the game's best receivers (like Dez Bryant) it can get ugly. Before you kill Fletcher for the rest of your lives, consider a few things: The acquisition of Fletcher, the insistence to keep throwing him out there and the scheme. Davis is the defensive coordinator and calls the plays, but he runs Kelly's scheme of choice. Kelly wants a two-gap 3-4 that is designed the stop the run first and for the most part, that's what the Eagles have done. Their defensive front seven is sound. The defensive line may be one of the best in the league. But in focusing on stopping the run, the secondary is often susceptible against the pass. I can't understand why there wasn't any safety help over the top for Fletcher after the first two touchdowns. Kelly believes in execution above all, but there has to be leeway to adjust more than the Eagles have. Davis finally switched Fletcher and Cary Williams (who had his own struggles), but it was too little too late.
5. Aside from the record and Chip Kelly (big things, of course), this season feels like, yes, 2012. Let me explain: The Eagles are on pace to finish with more turnovers (39) and penalties (126) than they had in 2012 (37, 118) in Andy Reid's final season when they were among the NFL's worst in both categories. Remarkably, the Eagles will finish with a winning mark this season. Kelly deserves credit for that, but he also has to shoulder blame for his team's carelessness and undisciplined play. It's difficult to find one prevailing reason why a team keeps making mistakes, but it is almost always a sign of a bad team. The Eagles are not bad. The 2012 Eagles were bad and had far many other issues. Their defense quit. This defense, despite its limitations, is still producing turnovers and showing full effort. The quarterbacks have been sloppy with the football, but when players like Brent Celek (Mr. Philadelphia Eagle, per Kelly) are coughing the ball up in a big spot, there is a larger issue. I just don't know what it is.
6. After a strong start, Malcolm Jenkins has become a liability in the secondary. He's still making plays against the run. Jenkins recorded a tackle for loss when he shot into the backfield in the third quarter (when was the last time Nate Allen did that?). But quarterbacks are increasingly picking on him over the middle. Like Fletcher, Jenkins is sometimes a victim of the scheme. I wrote about the subject on Saturday. Davis will sometimes stay in the base, even against three-receiver sets, to lean toward stopping the run. But that often puts Jenkins in the slot against receivers and he can struggle there. He's done a decent job on tight ends. He helped contain Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in the first game. But Witten got him a few times on Sunday night. Boykin and Carroll weren't much better over the middle as Romo found receivers on crossers underneath in the early going. Davis did adjust, but Romo just found other holes in the secondary. Kelly poo-poohed talk about the Eagles likely seeing a different Romo on Sunday vs. the first game, but that is clearly what happened. It was one of the major differences in the game.
7. Josh Huff has hurt far more than helped. Huff has made plays – two big ones to be exact: A 107-yard kick return touchdown vs. the Titans last month and a 44-yard catch and run last night against the Cowboys. But other than that, he has mostly set the Eagles back. He's a rookie. A raw one. So it's hard to criticize him. But Kelly isn't helping his star Oregon pupil. He keeps tossing Huff out there when he clearly isn't ready to handle the load. Kelly didn't assign blame on the opening kickoff muff, but Huff said he needed to communicate to Brad Smith, who was the up back, that the ball was dropping short. There was a strong north wind and there was one during pre-game warm-ups. The Eagles should have had two returners back deep instead of one. That oversight probably fell on special teams coordinator Dave Fipp. Huff played 11 of 55 snaps on offense. He was targeted twice. Sanchez threw to him over the middle in the second quarter. The ball was a little high, but it sailed through Huff's hands. Huff doesn't look like an NFL receiver in terms of how he catches the ball. It's awkward. He has skills with the ball in his hands, but right now he's a liability on vertical routes. He wasn't the only receiver to struggle against the Cowboys. I wrote about Riley Cooper's night and his season-long issues in my column for the newspaper here.
8. Speaking of the draft, it's difficult to see the opinion of it changing in two years. To me, Huff is the litmus test for Kelly's apparent Oregon bias. Kelly took him in the third round before many scouts had him graded and there have been a handful of receivers drafted after him that have been very productive this season (Donte Moncrief, John Brown, Martavis Bryant). It's far to early to form final conclusions on Huff or Marcus Smith or Jaylen Watkins, but they haven't gotten off to promising starts. Jordan Matthews has been a very good second round receiver. He has exceeded expectations (although no catches and a likely drop against the Cowboys didn't aid his cause). But Smith sat on the bench for another game and Watkins was inactive for another game. Defensive end Taylor Hart hasn't played all season, but he's stuck behind a strong six on the line that includes rookie nose tackle Beau Allen. The Eagles have gotten strong contributions from undrafted rookies Cody Parkey and Trey Burton, but draft picks are commodities you can't waste.
9. The great Darren Sproles disappearance continues. The Eagles tried to get Sproles (19 of 55 snaps) the ball. He rushed three times for five yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for eight yards, but defenses are taking him out. The misdirection screen hasn't worked in months. There has to be other ways to free him up. Kelly hasn't been able to get him into space where he is deadly and will often switch to another gear. He's looked mortal. It's far too small of sample to say that the 31-year-old is wearing down. It's not like he's out there for a ton of plays.