FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Well, that happened. You can't ever count out any NFL team on any given Sunday, to steal a phrase, so it wasn't as if the Eagles had no chance against the Patriots.
I thought, and wrote, that they would show up unlike in their previous two games. But to think they would have opened up a 35-14 lead in the fourth quarter, only to hold on with a 35-28 victory would have seemed far-fetched a day prior. But credit Chip Kelly. He showed that his team still had fight. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles still know how to win. It was an odd game with extreme ebbs and flows. Neither team scored in the first quarter. The Patriots then posted 14 points on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter. The Eagles then responded with a touchdown after Bill Belichick attempted an ill-advised pooch kick. I imagine some of the Eagles took that as a sign of disrespect.
And then they then scored 21 straight points on returns - a block punt, an interception and a punt. It was almost surreal watching the Eagles finally make clutch plays. And then a 12-play, 80-yard drive gave the Birds a 21-point lead. The Patriots responded, scoring the final 14 points, but they came up short.
Winning at Gillette Stadium against Belichick and Tom Brady can't be overstated. Those two combined have lost only 15 games over 15 years at home. Does the victory mean the Eagles' demons have all been exorcised? Hardly. But they're in the thick of the NFC East race at 5-7 and they clearly have as good a chance to win it as the Redskins (5-6 and playing the 3-8 Cowboys tonight) and the Giants (5-7).
They have home tests vs. the 6-6 Bills and the 10-2 Cardinals the next two weeks before hosting the Redskins and traveling to the Giants in the final two games. Some might not want to jump back on the bandwagon. The big picture problems haven't gone away. But Kelly isn't going anywhere and finishing strong, no matter the playoff implications, could point the ship back in the right direction.
2. They don't win without special teams, though. The Eagles' two special teams scores were a reminder of how Dave Fipp's units often saved the team last season. They accounted for five touchdowns a year ago. They have three now with four games left.
Chris Maragos blocked his second punt in two seasons. I still can't fathom why Belichick left enough time on the clock in that situation. But his mistake was the Eagles' gain. Najee Goode seamlessly scooped up the football and ran in for the touchdown. He was still cradling that ball after the game. Darren Sproles' 83-yard punt return was set up perfectly by his blockers. He had to break two tackles and weave his way through a minefield, but the return was so well executed that Sproles had Bryan Braman and Trey Burton escorting him into the end zone for the final 20 yards or so.
3. The defense returned to form. There was some late-game, fingernail-biting sloppiness, but Bill Davis' unit came to play against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Brady engineered two long drives - each covered 80 yards - that put the Pats up by 14, and it seemed as if the Eagles were in for another long day. But the defense had shown prior to those two drives that they could pressure Brady.
He wasn't playing with a full deck. The Patriots offensive line has been mangled. And Brady was without his two favorite targets - Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. But, again, give the Eagles their due. Davis was in the crosshairs following back-to-back game in which the Eagles allowed 40-plus points.
There was so much wrong with the defense that it was hard to identify one overriding reason for the decline after a solid first nines game. Much of their success had been dependent upon turnovers and they had nary a takeaway during the two-game skid. But they returned to form, forcing two Brady interceptions. Malcolm Jenkins had the first - a back-breaking 99-yard return after Walter Thurmond defended a pass that deflected to his fellow safety. And Byron Maxwell had the other when Brady floated a pass up for grabs in the end zone.
Pressure was key. Brady was sacked four times - Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham had two apiece. But coverage played a part, as well. Brady was holding the ball longer than normal. There were still breakdowns. The Eagles had early trouble switching off on criss-crossing routes. Jenkins took a bad pass interference penalty. The inside linebackers are still a liability in coverage. And they almost didn't close out the game. But beating Brady anywhere, anytime deserves praise.
4. The offense is still inconsistent. The Eagles kept shooting themselves in the collective foot. They had six first half penalties - two were declined - on offense. A Lane Johnson hold killed the first drive. An Allen Barbre face mask dented another. Self-inflected wounds were disrupting any kind of rhythm on offense. Sam Bradford put together two long drives that reached the end zone, though. And because of the three touchdown returns, the offense spent a lot of time on the sidelines.
So the choppy play wasn't solely on the shoulders of the offense. And some of Kelly's changes - I'll get to them later - had positive results. But there's still a sink-or-swim feel to his offense. And there are still personnel deficiencies that won't go away. But as long as Bradford stays healthy, the Eagles have a chance. Which brings us to …
5. Sam Bradford is good enough - for now. Bradford, who returned after missing two games with concussion and shoulder injuries, hasn't had a turnover in 14 quarters. He had 11 turnovers in his first seven games and zero in the next three. His numbers didn't jump off the page (14 of 24 for 120 yards and two touchdowns) but the individual parts were greater than the sum.
Bradford was good on third down. He threaded a 20-yard pass to Jordan Matthews on third and ten in the second quarter. He zipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz on third down in the second. He tossed a beauty to Matthews for a 10-yard touchdown on third down in the fourth. And he hit Riley Cooper for 14 yards on third and ten in the latter moments of the game.
There were still a few too many third down check downs for my tastes. But you're going to get those from game managers. And that's fine as long as turnovers are avoided. Bradford's ceiling isn't elite-level high, but he's clearly a better alternative to Mark Sanchez or Nick Foles. As for whether he's a better alternative to any other option next year is a topic for another day.
6. Chip Kelly finally took my advice (sort of). I write this in jest, of course. And I certainly haven't been the only person to suggest less of DeMarco Murray and more of Darren Sproles - and Ryan Mathews, if (when?) he returns. But Kelly went and did it. He cut into Murray's playing time - he played only 14 of a possible 61 snaps - and he increased Sproles' (35 snaps).
Kelly said it was a matchup thing. The Patriots have big linebackers. Sproles and Kenjon Barner (12 snaps) are smaller, quicker. Whatever. For the first time this season, Murray didn't receive the majority of snaps and carries when active. That is notable. And it appeared to work - at least until the end. Sproles finished with 15 carries for 66 yards and four catches for 34 yards.
Kelly had talked a lot about Sproles getting doubled every time he's on the field as one reason why he hadn't been especially productive for most of the season. But isn't getting doubled a good thing? Shouldn't that open the other skill position guys up? And shouldn't, if Sproles were to get more playing time, defenses have fewer chances to double him all the time?
Barner (nine carries for 39 yards, 2 catches for 7 yards) was effective, as well. Both Sproles and Barner's per-carry averages dropped as the Eagles tried to burn the clock, but the fact that Duce Staley had those guys on the field late speaks volumes about the trust in Murray (8 rushers for 24 yards) at this point. Barner may have hindered his chances to get those late-game opportunities with the fumble. It will be interesting to see how Kelly/Staley divvy up the running back playing time next week and when Mathews returns.
7. Kelly finally took my advice (sort of), Part II. The Eagles defense played a ton of nickel and dime because the Patriots went with a lot of three-wideout sets. So that had something to do with Vinny Curry's increased number of snaps (55 of 89). Bennie Logan (19 snaps) also wasn't 100 percent. But there seemed a concerted effort on, really, Davis' part to beef up the pass rush. And it appeared to work.
Curry didn't record a sack, but he had a number of pressures. Barwin's second sack wouldn't have happened without Curry getting in Brady's mug. And a quick shout out to Fletcher Cox - he was in Brady's grill the entire game. Same with Graham. Taylor Hart started in place of the injured Cedric Thronton. So that's one reason he played 34 snaps. But I don't get the fascination with Hart. Brandon Bair was active for the first time in a while. He played only 16 snaps. Beau Allen played 15. Hopefully, Curry's increased playing time wasn't game specific.
8. Kelly finally took my advice (sort of), Part III. Again, I'm not really suggesting that Kelly is reading my stories and thinking, "That McLane, he was right all along!" And I'm hardly the only one that thought Miles Austin should have been benched. I don't see the value of keeping him on the roster, frankly. He was a liability on offense and didn't help on special teams. It's not like Jonathan Krause scorched the Pats either. He looked shaky. But something needed to be done.
The Eagles continued to play more "12" personnel with two tight ends. The outside receivers are still a hot mess. Riley Cooper (34 snaps), Nelson Agholor (33), Josh Huff (31) and Krause (8) combined for just two catches for 18 yards. Huff didn't even have a target. Agholor had another drop. This problem hasn't been fixed merely be sitting Austin. But it's a start.
9. Kelly needs to take more advice (sort of). Why did it take so long for changes to be made? That's what happens when you build your team around offseason additions and they don't pan out. It's difficult to abandon ship. You don't want to panic, but you also don't want to sink the season.
The terrible NFC East has given Kelly that luxury. But his team was up against a wall. Something needed to be done. Will he stay with the changes? Who knows? Will he make more? Kiko Alonso played 77 of 89 snaps at inside linebacker - more than Mychal Kendricks (48) and DeMeco Ryans (21) combined. He gets the call more in passing situations, and it's not like Kendricks and Ryans have been good in coverage either. But maybe Goode deserves a look-see.
10. And a few leftovers … When Jason Peters plays the offensive line is a totally different unit. He gives them a chance. "The Bodyguard" didn't even play a strong game. But his playing allowed Johnson to move back to right tackle, where he's more comfortable, and he had a good day. … I thought Eric Rowe was solid considering he was making his first start. He wasn't exactly going up against elite receivers, but he never let anyone get behind him for a catch. … Marcus Smith recorded his first official solo NFL tackle! It was on special teams, though. Does that still count? … Ed Reynolds has officially replaced Maragos as the fifth defensive back in the nickel when Davis wants a third safety. He played a whopping 79 of 89 snaps. He had his struggles.