The Eagles defense has come alive. But has it happened too late?
After contributing mightily to a 4-8 start, Juan Castillo's group has powered the Eagles to two consecutive wins, including Sunday's 45-19 blowout over the Jets. The win kept the Eagles' faint playoff hopes alive, but barely. A Giants win Saturday over the Jets could eliminate the Eagles before they take the field for a 4:15 p.m. game in Dallas.
The Eagles began the day with their fate, oddly enough, in the Redskins' hands. A Giants win over Washington, which was expected, would have knocked the Eagles out of the NFC East title hunt before they even took the field. But as Eagles players watched in their trainers' room, the Redskins shocked the Giants, 23-10, in New Jersey, jumping to a big enough lead that Eagles players knew they were still alive at kickoff. They responded with a dominating performance, even as some expressed regret that they had put themselves in such a dire situation with their awful start.
"You think back on the season, and you get frustrated because there's a lot of games we should have won hands down, and we didn't win," said quarterback Mike Vick. "You have to kind of tell yourselves to continue to live in the moment."
Many did that as they enjoyed a big win at home, their first in Philadelphia since Oct. 30 and only the second home victory of the season. In the winning locker room a smiling Castillo extended his hand to cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for a fist bump.
"I've never seen this guy so happy," Asomugha said.
With the offense often being given excellent field position and playing from ahead thanks to a defensive score, the Eagles ran wild on a Ryan-led defense for the second time this year.
After scorching Rob Ryan's Cowboys unit for 34 points Oct. 30, the Eagles took apart Rex Ryan's group Sunday. They get another shot at Rob Saturday.
To have any chance at the NFC East crown - their only path to the playoffs - Andy Reid's team has to beat Dallas and then the Redskins to close out the season. They also need the Giants to lose Saturday and then beat the Cowboys in their final game of the season. (That also means the Eagles have to root for the Jets team they just pounded.) A Cowboys win in either of their last two games would eliminate the Eagles. The Eagles were knocked out of the wild-card race when Detroit beat Oakland on Sunday.
The Eagles put up their largest point total of the season, and LeSean McCoy broke the team record for touchdowns in a season by notching three. But the defense was the story for a second straight week. Juqua Parker's 47-yard fumble return provided the game's opening touchdown and an Asante Samuel interception stopped a Jets drive deep in Eagles territory. Along with Parker's score, takeaways set up two more touchdowns, accounting for 21 early points as the Eagles raced to a 28-0 lead.
Even with the Eagles offense and special teams turning the ball over four times in the first half, the defense limited the damage.
In all, the defense generated four turnovers and four sacks, including three by a surging Jason Babin. They confused Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez with stunts and blitzes, by sometimes moving Babin to a standup position like a linebacker and by largely containing running back Shonn Greene. The strong performance came after the Eagles generated three turnovers and nine sacks last week in Miami.
One defensive starter said the front four has focused more on the run on obvious running downs the last two weeks, easing up somewhat on the pass rush in order to force opponents into long down-and-distance situations. Then, on second and third down, they pass rushed with abandon.
"You make a team one dimensional. It allows the D-line to get off the ball that much faster, and it lets us cover and do what we do best," said a second defender, safety Kurt Coleman.
A defensive stand at the end of the first half proved crucial. After a McCoy fumble gave the Jets the ball on the Eagles' 27, the defense held the Jets to a field goal to keep the score at 28-13. The offense built the lead to a 35-13 on their first drive of the second half, sparked by a 73-yard Brent Celek catch and run. The Jets didn't get close again.
McCoy finished with 102 yards on 18 carries. Vick improved from his shaky performance in Miami last week, going 15 for 22 passing with one touchdown and one interception, and Celek had a career-high 156 yards receiving and a touchdown on just five catches.
"When you keep chipping away at something, a big old rock, even though people are busting you left and right, and you just keep going, sooner or later you break that rock," said Castillo, under fire for his play calls all season. "We've been tested, and I think all the guys have shown that they all have each other's back."
By mid-way through the fourth quarter Lincoln Financial Field was nearly empty - but this time fans had left comforted knowing that their team had a win, instead of exiting in disgust.
The next time the Eagles play at home is Jan. 1. They need some help and a win in Dallas to make it relevant.
"You'd love to go back and get some of these games back that we played," said defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, "but the reality is it's not going to happen, so you just can't dwell on it too much."