In the moments just after an Eagles victory at Lincoln Financial Field, the players one by one jog off the field, in a hurry to get to the locker room, and the sound that fills the ground-floor corridor, at the mouth of that exit tunnel, is usually a kind of fuzzy hum, reminiscent of an old television whose screen has gone to static. Usually. A different sound filled that corridor Sunday night.
This time, in the wake of the Eagles' resounding 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was a steady thumping, a drumbeat of noise finally pierced by the voice of Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham: "Whooped that ass, huh?" He shouted out the words not out of surprise but with a confident edge, as if he had expected what the rest of the football world regarded as a stunning outcome. So now, with the Eagles 3-0 and in first place in the NFC East, maybe it's time to stop being stunned and start expecting this team to be . . . well, if not this good, at least pretty close to it.
After all, it's impossible for the Eagles to continue to be this good. Isn't it? Their average margin of victory has been 21.7 points, and their most dominant and decisive win came against the Steelers, who themselves were 2-0 ahead of Sunday and who were regarded as a favorite to represent the AFC in this year's Super Bowl. Among the 30 NFL teams that have played three games this season, the Eagles have scored the most points (92) and surrendered the fewest (27), and they've done this following an offseason of such upheaval and overhaul that their resulting precision beggars belief.
Remember: The Eagles not only have a rookie head coach in Doug Pederson, a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz, and a rookie starting quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they traded Sam Bradford, the man who was supposed to be their starting quarterback, eight days before the season began. If you say that you saw this degree of excellence ahead for this team, after those changes, either you're a compulsive liar or you earn your living by buffing Jeffrey Lurie's Brogues.
"Am I surprised? A little," Pederson said. "But at the same time, I know that locker room. I know those guys. I know what they're building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did [Sunday] just proves that they're coming together as a football team."
They are not a perfect football team, of course, and they will not be. Far from it. Lane Johnson, their right tackle and best offensive lineman, will soon begin a 10-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. They are starting a rookie cornerback, Jalen Mills, who has struggled in coverage. Their receivers still drop too many of Wentz's passes. And it would have been natural to think that the Steelers would have exploited those weaknesses Sunday. Instead, the game was never competitive, and the longer that the Eagles play like this, the fewer excuses they have for regressing to whatever their mean was thought to have been.
"Nothing's changed," running back Kenjon Barner said. "The only change is the quarterback. We have ultimate belief in each other."
The only change is the quarterback? That's a pretty big one.
"It's a major change," Barner said, "but when you see a guy work day in and day out, when you see a guy go out and make the plays that we've seen Carson make going back to training camp, when you see the throws he's able to make, you have confidence in that guy because it's not something you haven't seen."
If there was a moment Sunday that crystallized the Eagles' transformation from a team that had recorded two impressive victories against unimpressive opponents - the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears - to a team that ought to be taken seriously, it was the game's most memorable play: Wentz's 73-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles early in the third quarter. The sequence - Wentz's breaking the pocket and straddling the line of scrimmage, his feathery throw to Sproles along the right sideline, Sproles' Frogger-ing his way past and around defenders to the end zone - gave the Eagles a 20-3 lead. From then on, no group of people ever looked more eager to start that endless drive west on the Pa. Turnpike than the Steelers did.
In a game such as Sunday's, you get telltale moments like that: Wentz-to-Sproles, Graham's shout in that tunnel. And there was one more, one that was subtler but still stood out. With 7 1/2 minutes left in regulation, with his team up 31 points, with Wentz still in the game, Pederson had him attempt a long sideline pass to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. It seemed a needless risk. Why keep Wentz on the field in a game that was all but decided, and why anger the Steelers - and open Wentz up to an act of retaliation - by throwing deep?
"I don't ever want to get caught where the wind sort of comes out of your sails just a little bit," Pederson said. "I want to keep sending that message to our guys that we're going to remain aggressive until the time is right. So I'm going to continue to coach that way."
It was a message, all right - to his players and to the rest of the NFL. Whatever they were supposed to be, the Eagles are something different. The surprise stops now, and the expectations start.