Eagles run into a real playoff team
THEIR PLAYOFF hopes live another week, because they play in a terrible division, but the Eagles' illusions of late-season competence surely died Sunday night on the yellowing Lincoln Financial Field grass, against a seriously more talented and better-coached Arizona Cardinals team, 40-17.
Their playoff hopes live another week, because they play in a terrible division, but the Eagles' illusions of late-season competence surely died Sunday night on the yellowing Lincoln Financial Field grass, against a seriously more talented and efficient Arizona Cardinals team, 40-17.
"You don't win many games when you tackle like that," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis observed, after an Eagles opponent hit the 40 mark for the third time in the last five games, ending the Birds' modest two-game win streak. "I wish I knew where that came from, because we really had been tackling a lot better than we did tonight."
How messed up is your year when your two biggest acquisitions end up watching from the sideline, as much-less-heralded replacements flail and fail against a hard-hitting, serious NFC contender that ran its record to 12-2, with its eighth win in a row? The Cardinals clinched the NFC West title, for the first time since 2009, and set a franchise victory record.
Byron Maxwell, the Eagles' $63 million corner, took himself out of the drubbing early with a shoulder injury, though not early enough for many fans' tastes. Maxwell said afterward he would have an MRI Monday.
One of the season's lowlight-reel plays will be Maxwell riding Cardinals tight end Daniel Fells downfield during the Cards' first-series touchdown drive, unable to slow Fells on a 36-yard gain or touch the ball, Maxwell looking like Olive Oyl being carried away by Brutus.
DeMarco Murray, the Eagles' $40 million running back, didn't get on the field until 21 minutes had elapsed. Ultimately he carried twice, gaining three yards.
"I expected us to run the ball better," which would have given Murray more opportunities, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said.
Kelly decided not to use Murray on fourth-and-1 at the Cards' 8 just before halftime, when a touchdown would have produced a 17-17 halftime tie. The Bleeding Green Nation website wrote a few days ago about how Murray was 15-for-15 this season on third-and-short, and had converted his only fourth-down carry. So Chip went with Ryan Mathews, who might have lost a few inches.
Kelly said he thought Mathews, listed at 220 pounds, should have been able to pick up the yard. Players said the Cardinals changed their defense after taking a timeout; the Eagles, who also took timeout, before the Cards did, changed the formation but not the play.
The Linc crowd might has well have left for home right then. The Eagles turned the ball over four times and made few stops in the second half. They trailed, 37-10, when Sam Bradford threw a 39-yard pick-six to Deone Bucannon late in the third quarter.
It might be a really bad sign for the Eagles' matchup Saturday at the Linc against potent Washington that both their starting corners are injured – rookie Eric Rowe went down in the first half Sunday night with a concussion. The Eagles still make the playoffs by winning the NFC East if they win Saturday and again the next Sunday at the Giants. They are out of contention if they lose to Washington, which beat Buffalo Sunday to take the division lead at 7-7.
Asked if he viewed the defense's performance without Maxwell and Rowe with an asterisk, Kelly said: "Unfortunately, there are no asterisks. Everybody's hurt at this point in time during the season. We gotta make do ... Defensively we didn't tackle, and offensively, we turned the ball over."
After Maxwell and Rowe left, the NFL's deepest wideout group, working with one of its most experienced quarterbacks in Carson Palmer, didn't have much trouble with Jaylen Watkins and E.J. Biggers. Palmer finished 20 for 32 for 274 yards. The Cards ran for 230 yards, to the Eagles' piddling 74.
"It came down to tackling and poor fits," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Those are the same things that plagued us a few games back."
The Cards' strong performance wasn't a surprise. What was a surprise, or at least was really disappointing to fans, was the way the Eagles kept losing matchups they would have thought they'd win when the season began.
An early Arizona field-goal drive should have ended on the first set of downs, when Palmer dumped to rookie running back David Johnson (29 carries, 187 yards) short of the chains on third-and-2. Johnson was one-on-one with Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Johnson, playing because Chris Johnson is injured, easily eluded Kendricks, who considered himself one of the best in the league this time last year. Nine yards, first down.
"We did not do a good job of tackling (Johnson) tonight," Kelly said.
Even more wrenching was an Eagles third-quarter play, with the hosts down 23-10 but driving and looking capable of getting back in the game – until Cardinals rookie linebacker Markus Golden blew right past Eagles seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and blasted Bradford from the blindside, causing a fumble teammate Frostee Rucker recovered. How you fix the offensive line is going to be the question of the Eagles' offseason.
The Eagles' next series, they were driving again until Mathews fumbled the ball away. He said he didn't see defensive tackle Josh Mauro, who easily poked the ball out from behind.
Bradford finished 28-for-41 for 361 yards, two touchdowns and the two picks, for a 6-8 team (3-7 in the NFC) that now can't finish better than .500, and shouldn't.
The Cardinals had the Eagles' defense on its heels from the first play of the first series. Palmer had John Brown deep, Brown having sped past Rowe, but Brown dropped a perfect pass.
Arizona shrugged off this setback, moving 78 yards in the next seven plays for a 7-0 lead. Johnson ran it in from a yard out, two plays after the Maxwell piggyback ride from Fells.
The Eagles got back a 36-yard field goal, driving 56 yards in 12 plays, but the drive stalled after Bradford had to leave for a play after taking a big hit on his still-tender left shoulder.
The Eagles did get a drive-stopping play eventually, Fletcher Cox reaching through A.Q. Shipley and sacking Palmer on third and 5 from the Eagles' 6. The 28-yard field goal made it 10-3.
The Eagles got even on a 22-yard Bradford pass to Zach Ertz on which the Cardinals had just 10 defenders on the field – an example of the Eagles' tempo working.
Arizona took the lead again on a 47-yard Johnson run. Taylor Hart had a chance to blow the play up in the backfield, but fell down untouched. Safety Ed Reynolds might have had the best shot of several Eagles who failed to tackle Johnson.
"I think we had seven missed tackles on that play, including myself," Reynolds said.
Still, the Eagles seemed poised to make it a tie game at halftime when they used a 39-yard Josh Huff kickoff return to propel a drive that took them to the Arizona 17 with a first down at the two-minute warning. Kelly unaccountably went with Mathews, who didn't get the first down.
"That was kind of the game, we don't get it there, you look back at that … in hindsight," Kelly said, which might be a little strong, given how Arizona ended the evening with 493 total yards and 28 first downs. But it certainly was an important moment.
"They ran a double A-gap blitz," Eagles right guard Matt Tobin said. "We had (Riley Cooper) lead blocking on the play. I'm not even sure what happened … That hurt us a little bit. We still had our chances, didn't make anything of it."
The Eagles had two tight ends and Cooper blocking a defensive back, but corner Jerraud Powers and safety/linebacker Bucannon filled the hole anyway.
"There was just a lot of people in the box," said Mathews, who gained 58 yards on 11 carries.
If there is a bright spot – and you really have to squint to see it – Bradford played well enough to further nurture hopes that he can be the longterm answer at the most important position, at least he did before the score got out of hand. This could be a bigger deal, ultimately, than limping into the playoffs at 8-8, in the unlikely event that happens.
"I thought Sam played well. Again, we've got to catch the ball better for him," Kelly said. "I thought he threw the ball well tonight. He got hit, but he stayed in there, delivered the ball."
Bradford noted that the Eagles "made some plays," but "we just had too many self-inflicted wounds to really do anything."
"I think everyone is a little bit frustrated after the way we played tonight. Obviously, we thought that we were taking steps in the right direction. And you know, we really kept ourselves in the game up until, I don't know, midway through the third … and then just kind of collapsed."
On Twitter: @LesBowen