CINCINNATI - Several Eagles declared their team never quit Sunday, in a 32-14 loss to a Cincinnati Bengals group that set a season scoring high, and led 29-0 in the third quarter.
Standing there in a silent, forlorn visitors locker room at Paul Brown Stadium, it was hard not to feel embarrassed for them. Maybe they really believed what they were saying, and were just fooling themselves. Maybe they knew better, but were desperate to cover their humiliation with as many shreds of their tattered dignity as they could gather.
Whatever. If you watched the first half Sunday, you saw several guys who were not scratching and clawing to save their season. Rewind any of a half-dozen long Andy Dalton completions, achieved with receivers running free and no pass-rush pressure, or even how Eagles defenders reacted on Jeremy Hill's 2-yard touchdown run that made it 10-0 late in the first quarter. It wasn't exactly Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
This was the third loss in a row, each by a greater margin than the game before it. This was the seventh loss in nine games. This was the sixth successive road loss. This was a complete collapse, against an opponent that came in 3-7-1, having won one game - against the winless Browns - since September. This was a glimpse into the abyss.
Does that sound like hyperbole, for a team playing a rookie quarterback, that was never supposed to contend for the playoffs? Maybe. But the four remaining teams on the schedule all have winning records. You close out on a seven-game losing streak, you throw into question anything you might have achieved. Did you hire a competent coach in Doug Pederson? Is defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz more smoke and mirrors than substance, like his old buddy Jim Washburn? Hey, after this, it's fair to wonder if giving up all that stuff to draft Carson Wentz was such a great idea. Certainly, the list of assets that must be acquired to build a contender around Wentz is lengthy and growing.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed in the way we played," said Pederson, who when asked about effort, said, "It's not from lack of effort." Pederson went on to target discipline and focus.
"I'm hurting like the players are. I'm obviously disappointed with where we are, because I felt we had some opportunities to win some of these games," Pederson said.
Three weeks ago, the Eagles were 5-4, coming off a solid, 24-15 home victory over Atlanta. They hadn't lost to a team with a losing record. They'd outscored their opponents by 66 points, hadn't lost by double digits. Their defense was ranked in the top five in the league.
All three games since, they've lost by double digits, twice to teams with losing records. They have one sack, for no yards, achieved in Seattle. Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Dalton have thrown for a combined 917 yards against them.
"We still have a month of football left. Obviously three of the next four are division opponents. We've got some challenges," Pederson said. "I told the guys in the locker room at the end of the game, this can go either one of two ways. I only know one way that it's going to go, and that's up. We just have to dig ourselves out of this hole, and it starts next week."
Of course, that was the sort of stuff the Eagles said after their Monday night loss to the Packers. The digging out was supposed to start this week. Instead, they dug deeper.
Pederson said he implored his players to "look in the mirror and see if you're doing enough . . . Penalties have got to stop. Obviously, the turnovers and things like that, too. It's just not characteristic of how we coach and how we play."
Or is it? This was Wentz's first three-interception game, and he could have been picked off a few more times. With top receiver Jordan Matthews sidelined by a right ankle sprain, running the ball against the 28th-ranked run defense in the NFL seemed like a good idea, but the Bengals knew this was coming and stacked the box. Pederson's jury-rigged offensive line, with Allen Barbre at right tackle, got no push. Leading rusher Wendell Smallwood (eight carries, 19 yards) did not attempt a run in the second half. Ryan Mathews again was inactive with an MCL injury.
"The running game wasn't nearly as effective as we thought it was going to be," tight end Zach Ertz said.
As the deficit mounted, the Bengals scoring on their first six possessions, Pederson made Wentz the fourth quarterback in Eagles history to attempt 60 passes in a game. Wentz completed 36, for 308 yards and a touchdown - much of that success late-game, prevent defense, insurmountable lead-type success - and the three picks. He also had several passes batted down.
Wentz targeted Ertz 15 times, connecting on nine, for 79 yards. But this pattern became so obvious that Wentz's final interception happened when linebacker Vontaze Burfict basically figured out what was coming, jumped up and grabbed the ball.
Asked if his mechanics have slipped, something Pederson alluded to, Wentz said: "I don't think so. You throw the ball 60 times, you're going to miss some. That kind of happens."
"The second half, we played with a lot of urgency. I thought we played a lot better," Ertz said. "Obviously, you can make the argument they were just trying to protect the lead, play prevent defense, but we moved the ball better. I thought there was more of a sense of urgency. I don't think guys gave up, by any means."
Ertz blamed "stupid, stupid penalties," which were a problem, but really, not being able to block, or throw accurately, or get open consistently on the rare occasions when Wentz had good protection seemed like bigger offensive issues than the penalties.
Defensively, it always starts up front. The Eagles' well-paid front four seethed all week about the blame it took for the Green Bay loss. It seemed likely that against a team ranked 27th in scoring, a team that rotates its right tackles, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Co. would come out snorting fire.
They recorded one hit all afternoon on Dalton, who converted seven of his first nine third-down attempts, despite being without his top weapon, injured wide receiver A.J. Green.
Graham was one of very few Eagles who seemed to be bringing it every snap.
"We just haven't got off the field like we want to on third down," said Graham, who sounded heartbroken. He insisted that mistakes are mainly to blame, not a lack of talent or will.
Cox talked about teams using seven to protect and the Eagles rushing with four. "You do the math," he said.
"We know what type of team we have. We know that we hold each other accountable. That's the way we've got to approach things moving forward," Cox said. "We got four games left, and we're really going to see what this team's made of, the next four weeks."
The thing is, maybe we've been seeing what the team is made of, these last three weeks.
Corner Nolan Carroll, who had an awful day, said the Eagles the past few weeks have not been able to play zone effectively on third down. "It's been frustrating . . . We've got to get back to doing what we do. That's getting turnovers, getting off the field on third down, and getting after the quarterback . . . The stuff that's made us good, we haven't been able to do."
Safety Rodney McLeod noted that the Eagles were able to force a lot more third-and-longs Sunday than they'd managed against the Packers, but they couldn't stop the Bengals from converting.
"You look at most of the games we've won, it's come down to how we've played in the back end," McLeod said. "Guys take pride in it. Andy Dalton (21 of 33 for 332 yards, two TDs, 130 passer rating) just sorta made some good throws, but ultimately, we've got to look at ourselves in the mirror . . . We've been practicing everything they're going to run in certain sets. We just didn't get off the field."