The main theme of this Eagles season is never going to change. When each game is over, regardless of the outcome, we all want to analyze this question: How'd the rookie quarterback and rookie coach do?
In recent weeks the answer was not so good.
The Eagles arrived at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday having lost four of their last five and Carson Wentz had failed in each of the four losses to lead his team on game-tying or game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. That is the kind of thing that separates the good NFL quarterbacks from the great ones.
Doug Pederson, meanwhile, had become the primary target of criticism among the souring fan base that was so exuberant after a surprising 3-0 start. One week (against the Cowboys) he was too passive and the next week (against the Giants) he was too aggressive. Every decision he seemed to make was the wrong one even if he felt like he was making them for the right reasons.
With the Eagles at home for only the second time in six games, the pendulum swung back in the direction of the rookie quarterback and rookie coach Sunday as the Eagles pulled out a 24-15 victory over Atlanta that came courtesy of the first game-winning, fourth-quarter scoring drive of Wentz's career.
"It was good to get the monkey off our back, so to speak," Wentz said. "Fourth quarter, finish the game . . . we're going to build on that for sure."
Down, 15-13, in a grind-it-out game against the NFL's top-scoring offense, Wentz and the offense took the field with 10 minutes, 25 seconds remaining and the ball on their own 24-yard line. The Eagles used an up-tempo scheme that focused on getting the ball to tight end Zach Ertz and super back Darren Sproles to go 76 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
"That was the drive we were empty [in the backfield] a bunch," Wentz said. "That was good for me to get me confident and to keep things rolling. They were only giving us so many looks in that empty package, so we kind of knew where to go with the ball each time, and Sproles and Ertz were big on that drive."
Ertz started the drive with an 18-yard catch and Sproles kept it going with a 4-yard catch on a third-and-two play. The Eagles got to the 5-yard line after cornerback Brian Poole was flagged for a 21-yard pass-interference call against Jordan Matthews. Ryan Mathews covered the final 5 yards with a powerful run into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
"I thought [Wentz] managed [the winning drive] extremely well," Pederson said. "He's understanding the guys around him, situational ball. Those are the things that I've talked about all season and it began to show up today. These are the things we keep talking about each and every week with him and he did an outstanding job and led this team to obviously a team win."
Wentz gave himself a two-letter grade: OK.
"I'm going to have to go back and look at the tape and see some things that I missed," he said. "But I thought it was OK."
For the second straight week and the third time this season, the rookie quarterback failed to throw a touchdown pass. He completed 25 of 36 passes for 231 yards, with the longest going for just 20 yards. He also lost a fumble after holding the ball too long on a second-quarter sack, but the Falcons failed to cash in for any points.
The quarterback was also the first to admit that the entire offense was aided by a running game that compiled a season-high 208 yards, including 109 from Mathews.
Wentz, who came into Sunday's game averaging a league-worst 1.6 yards per carry among NFL quarterbacks, did contribute to the rushing game with a 13-yard run for a first down late in the third quarter that eventually led to a field goal early in the fourth.
"It was a screen play," he said. "The Red Sea kind of parted there and I just took off and tried to make a play."
Wentz made just enough plays Sunday and the head coach, using a far more conservative approach on fourth-and-short situations, also was rewarded for that line of thinking.
Faced with a fourth and goal from the 2-yard line early in the third quarter, the coach opted to send in Caleb Sturgis for a field-goal attempt that was good only after a delay-of-game penalty. The far more difficult decision came just before the two-minute warning with the Eagles up six and facing a fourth-and-2 situation from the Atlanta 31.
A field goal would put the game away, but so would a first down. Miss the field goal and the Falcons would have had the ball at the 38.
Pederson initially sent his offense on the field, but then called a timeout and reconsidered. Sturgis, who had missed from 44 and 55 yards earlier in the game, nailed a 48-yarder.
"Obviously my gut instinct was to possibly go for it," Pederson said.
It always is, but this time the percentages prevailed.
"We were well within Caleb's range . . . and I've got to say how well he kicked the ball today," Pederson said.
The talk on Monday always focuses on how the rookie coach and the rookie quarterback did. And on this day OK was good enough to get the Eagles back over .500 at 5-4.