WHAT DID WE learn about the Eagles in yesterday's 43-24 stroll past the now-2-9 Tennessee Titans?
Start with the good stuff: We were reassured that the run game still works (130 rushing yards for LeSean McCoy, on 21 carries) and the pass rush still works (five sacks of Zach Mettenberger, lots more pressures). Special teams are still lethal (team-record 107-yard Josh Huff touchdown return of the opening kickoff). Jordan Matthews is still good (six catches for 77 yards, all in the first half). Third-down defense (2-for-12) and offense (10-for-18 before the kneeldown) were very strong.
There were enough bad moments sprinkled in, though, to make the obligatory look ahead to Thursday's game at Dallas a little perilous. And if you're projecting this 8-3 team into the playoffs, well, prospects for success there look equally dicey.
Two more Mark Sanchez interceptions yesterday, running the Eagles' league-leading turnover total to 27. (Six picks for Sanchez in less than four complete games.) A 3-for-7 red-zone performance that was real mediocre, some of it due to sloppy penalties. Softer-than-Charmin pass coverage; a Titans offense that couldn't get any run-game traction and was forced early into pass, pass, pass, with a rookie quarterback making his fourth start, still rolled up 345 air yards, including a couple of touchdowns.
The loss of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans for the season loomed large, especially when Titans tight end Delanie Walker zipped past Emmanuel Acho for 68 yards, with Acho suffering a groin injury on the play. Walker finished with five catches for 155 yards.
It didn't take a lot of imagination to envision Tony Romo carving up this turkey the way Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers did last week. You have to assume Casey Matthews and first-round rookie Marcus Smith will be chasing Jason Witten around in some coverages - there isn't time to sign another linebacker and teach him the defense by Thursday.
"Marcus is the next man up," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said.
Is Smith ready for this?
"He's going to have to be," Davis said. "I can control some of that by calls . . . I think he is. We'll see. You really never know, until you get 'em out there, in the game, with the bright lights on."
The lights are indeed going to be bright, deep in the heart of Texas, in the domed stadium of the only threat to the Eagles' second successive NFC East title.
"I know it's a big-time rivalry," Sanchez offered. He finished 30-for-43 for 307 yards, a touchdown, the two picks and a 78.3 passer rating. "We're in the third quarter and people are screaming about the Dallas game, and this thing is still going on. It's like, 'What are they talking about?' "
But, hey, the Eagles are 8-3 and they won yesterday without a lot of stress and strife, or with any building-block performers getting injured. They were up 17-0 before the Titans even knew where they were. (And yeah, Tennessee worked it back to 20-14 before the Eagles kicked into gear again, but still . . .
"We talk about starting fast . . . I don't think you can get a faster start than that," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said after Huff, the rookie who has endured some misadventures, including being the first guy to whiff on a Packers punt-return TD last week, put the Birds ahead 7-0 just 13 seconds into the game. Huff zipped between blocks from Brad Smith and James Casey, then stiff-armed both kicker Ryan Succop and corner Brandon Ghee as he made his way down the right sideline.
Kelly noted that the Eagles weren't caught looking ahead to Dallas, and they didn't let the 33-point Green Bay blowout weigh them down.
"They were focused on Tennessee, and I think that showed in their play today," he said. Kelly is now 15-4 in his last 19 regular-season games, since midseason of 2013. "I don't think anybody that's inside that locker room ever had any question that we were going to bounce back like we did."
"The way we played last week, we had a lot to prove," said outside linebacker Connor Barwin, whose two sacks yesterday gave him a career-high 12 1/2. "For me, it was like I was a kid and this Sunday was Christmas, and I couldn't wait for it to get here. I felt like what we did as a group last week was just embarrassing . . . we were focused on playing better this week. Now it's over, and now we focus on Dallas."
It helped the pass rush that Mettenberger held the ball longer than Rodgers did, partly because the Titans' offense emphasizes more vertical routes, partly because he's a rookie, seeing things for the first time.
The run game looked like 2013 yesterday, for a couple of reasons. One was that the injury-challenged offensive line was as sharp as it has been this season, with Andrew Gardner stepping in at right guard for Matt Tobin. Another reason, which Kelly mentioned, was that the Titans played a lot of guys on the line, couldn't bring the second-level traffic some teams have used to jam the Eagles; McCoy had a Broad Street-wide cutback lane on his season-long 53-yard ramble in the second quarter.
"We got the momentum going early; usually when we do that, we have a 100-yard day or better," right tackle Lane Johnson said.
McCoy, the league's 2013 rushing champion, was perturbed to be asked if he was "the same player," in a Wednesday news conference.
"LeSean's the type of guy that understands you've got to block out a lot of what the media's saying . . . it gets to the point where it can overwhelm you a little bit. Obviously, I think it got to him a little bit last week," center Jason Kelce said. "He went out there and played hard, and that's the way he has been all season."
McCoy, who has 859 yards on 217 carries in 11 games (4.0 yards per carry), said the difference yesterday was that "we just stuck to it," though some weeks, lack of carries hasn't really been the problem. "I think everybody executed. We got the backs in one-on-one situations; guys up front really blocked well, even the guys outside, the wide receivers . . . We got points when we needed points, drove the ball well."
McCoy said the Eagles' record "shows we're a good team, but to be better, I think the turnovers, from everybody [have to end] . . . [Kelly] has really been focusing in on that lately."
At least the turnover differential actually improved, from minus-nine to minus-eight, with the Eagles forcing a late Mettenberger interception along with two Titans fumbles.
The second fumble was as close to a pivotal play as the second half provided. The Birds led 27-17 as the Titans began their first drive of the third quarter. Mettenberger's pass, swatted by Fletcher Cox, came down in the hands of center Brian Schwenke, who trundled forward. As Schwenke went down, he was hit by Mychal Kendricks, and the ball popped loose. Nate Allen pounced on it, at Tennessee's 33. Replays were far from conclusive that Schwenke wasn't down when he lost the ball, but the ruling on the field was fumble, and the replays did not prove otherwise.
"I thought his elbow was down, but I'm 0-for-whatever this year," Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We haven't gotten one of those calls to go our way the whole year, it seems like."
The Eagles made it 34-17 on a 14-yard rollout pass from Sanchez to James Casey, three plays later, and that was that.
Now, Dallas. Davis said there will be no review of yesterday's game, coaches were going back to NovaCare to install the Thursday game plan as you slept. They will rely heavily on their offseason and bye-week work on the Cowboys, he said. The players, normally off today, will practice extensively, as if this were a Thursday before a Sunday game. Get your ice bags ready, fellas.
"It's a big game . . . this is a must-win type of game. I look forward to that," McCoy said. "We always have these battles with Dallas."
Kelly noted that the Cowboys were playing the Giants last night, said the Eagles "will get that last game in" their evaluation.
Sanchez called the super-short week "a race against the clock."
"I'm trying to get home now just so I can see what they're doing," outside linebacker Brandon Graham said.
Kelce said the emphasis will be more on extra film study, less on field work.
"Obviously, it's tough to do a quick turnaround, but now everybody in the league has to do it; it's not like just one or two teams have to deal with it," given that games are scheduled every Thursday, Gardner said. "It's just kind of part of the business, and you know it's coming. I think coach Kelly and the staff here do a good job of being smart about turnarounds . . . I think we'll be ready on Thursday."