THE EAGLES have lost their last two games mainly because they were outplayed early; they fell behind, 14-0, at Detroit and at Washington. In both games, they took a ridiculous number of penalties and were mistake-ridden enough that, had they managed to pull out a win in the final minutes, it would have felt like thievery.
And yet, both weeks, that opportunity was there. Carson Wentz and the offense failed to seize it.
The bigger-picture issues of Sam Bradford facing Wentz, or the defense's inability to stop the run Sunday, or rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai's awful debut in place of Lane Johnson, have tended to dominate Eagles discussion this week. But with the Birds facing a Minnesota Vikings defense that has allowed the fewest points in the NFL, and Minnesota ranking 30th in NFL offense, it's quite possible we're looking at a close, low-scoring game Sunday.
The kind of contest that could be won or lost on a late-game drive.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday he thinks Wentz has the right stuff to prevail in such situations, but, as a rookie with only five starts under his belt, he's still figuring out the logistics.
"The thing you want to see from that guy is, you just don't want to see him waver. You want to see zero doubt. You want to see all confidence," Pederson said. "And, obviously, the one player that comes to mind is Brett Favre for me, the one that I spent eight years with (as a backup QB in Green Bay).
"Just watching him in two-minute situations, and how successful he was and how he could just put a team on his back and go win the football game - those are things that I see Carson eventually getting to that spot, but what I do see now is, I see the confidence. I see him rallying the troops. I see him making some difficult throws. Is it perfect? No, but it's still a learning opportunity for him."
In Detroit, Wentz had a 23-21 lead until Ryan Mathews fumbled with two minutes, 34 seconds remaining, setting up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal. The Eagles got the ball back with 1:28 left at their 25, but instead of working methodically downfield, Wentz went for broke on the first snap. His long bomb to Nelson Agholor was intercepted by Darius Slay, who tracked the ball better than Agholor and went over him to catch it.
"We didn't make a play. They made a great play," Wentz said afterward. "It wasn't a perfect throw. Obviously, I tried to give Nelson a chance to make a play. I left it too far outside. The cornerback, he made a great play, and it sealed the win for them."
"I could have had better sight on it," Agholor acknowledged that day.
Last Sunday, second-and-6 at the Washington 42, 2:06 remaining, trailing, 27-20, Wentz stood too long in the pocket and took a 9-yard sack. Then, next snap, third-and-15, he did the same thing, and was sacked again. Pederson opted to punt on fourth-and-24, with 1:44 left, and the Eagles never got the ball back.
"I have to be better, especially late in the game," Wentz said afterward.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich was asked this week whether quarterbacks tend to hold the ball and look for a big play when they're behind late.
"You do get behind and maybe you're trying to make that chunk play like you're talking about, and you're looking for that down-the-field throw," he said. "I think that might be one of the lessons learned from the (Washington) game, is when you're behind, 5- and 7-yard gains, getting into your checkdowns, there's still a lot to be said for that."
Wentz was asked this week whether it is tougher to make decisions in such spots.
"It comes down to just executing. There's a couple things, last two games, we just didn't execute at the end. To have chances to win late in games and to come up short as an offense is frustrating. I take it a lot on myself," Wentz said. "Those are things we go back and look at - where could we have made better decisions, and things like that.
"It's frustrating, but I don't think it clouds your judgment by any means, in those situations."
Less offensive o-line?
Halapoulivaati Vaitai is scheduled to start again Sunday at right tackle, as Lane Johnson serves the second installment of his 10-game NFL suspension. Vaitai looked overwhelmed at Washington, but, really, nobody on the o-line played well. This is a huge issue, facing what should be an even better defensive front.
"That's the one spot on your football team that, as a group, they have to colectively be on the same page," Doug Pederson said Friday. "Being at home helps . . . In 'Big V's' situation, he's had a week now under his belt, he's learned, he's gotten better this week. He'll be much better."
Pederson said cohesiveness and poise is the message.
"It starts with (center Jason) Kelce - it starts with his linebacker calls and points . . . (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland) talks about it all the time - if you just do your job, trust your technique, trust your instincts, good things usually happen, and I'm a big believer in that, too. Don't get too bent out of shape . . . settle in, settle your feet, be in position. Will you get beat from time to time? Yeah. But it's part of the game."
Left guard Allen Barbre said the most difficult thing about the Vikings' double A-gap blitz pressure is that "they've got an answer for everything you do - an answer for everybody's protection . . . That frees up a lot of guys, free runners at the quarterback."
The Vikings have 19 sacks in five games, the league's best sack rate.
"It's not just double-A," right guard Brandon Brooks said. "They bring blitzes from all over the field . . . It can come at any time, from anywhere."
Bennie Logan (groin) was the only Eagle who wasn't a full practice participant Friday. The team listed Logan as questionable, but he did not practice this week and seems unlikely to play . . . Leodis McKelvin (hamstring), Ron Brooks (calf) and Mychal Kendricks (ribs) all were listed as questionable along with Logan, but all said they thought they would play . . . If Logan is out, Beau Allen starts, and the extra d-lineman who might dress would be Steven Means, but Means said Friday he hasn't heard anything about being active. With McKelvin and Brooks both returning from injury, the Eagles might decide to use Logan's spot for corner C.J. Smith.