BALTIMORE - The play that cannot happen happened with 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The Eagles were up, 14-13. The Ravens had no timeouts. A field goal would not have been ideal, but, all things considered, 16-14 would have looked pretty close to a first-half win for an Eagles team that was just 1-6 on the road all season. The Ravens seemed content to let that scenario play out.
The play that cannot happen had happened just four times the first 14 weeks of the NFL season: a touchdown of 30 yards or longer with less than 30 seconds left in the first half. It does not happen because it can't happen. Yet, on Sunday, it did. The opposing quarterback took the snap, twirled a rainbow, and watched his 37-year-old wide receiver run under it in stride.
Even after all of the mayhem that transpired in the final two quarters of the Eagles' 27-26 loss to the Ravens, the waning seconds of the first half remained fresh in their minds. The cramped visitors' locker room at M & T Bank Stadium was home to a frustrated group of defensive players. Stool by stool, stall by stall, they sounded a familiar refrain. One or two plays. That's the difference between who we are and who we thought we could be. Exhibit A: J. Flacco to S. Smith, 34 yards, touchdown.
So what happened?
The short answer - that Steve Smith beat Jalen Mills deep and Jaylen Watkins was late with the deep help he was supposed to provide - is not necessarily the accurate answer. According to several players in the secondary, the play call was for Mills to play a trail coverage, meaning his primary responsibility was to protect the deep sideline and keep Smith inbounds, guarding against a deep comeback or deep out type of route. That's why Smith had a free release, and it's at least part of the reason Mills was running behind and underneath of Smith.
"When you're in that position, you're thinking to defend the field goal because you don't expect them to take that shot," linebacker Jordan Hicks said.
Watkins, who had a significant role in the Eagles' defensive-back rotation before injuring a finger last week against the Redskins, struggled to cover enough ground on a handful of plays against the Ravens. Mills, whose forte is close combat in physical man-on-man situations, also seemed frustrated with the coverage call itself, though he did his best to muffle his displeasure.
"I was locking dudes down until that one play, you know what I mean?" he said. "Was it a call that I wanted to be in? No, but regardless, plays have to be made."
In the end, all that matters is that those plays weren't made. A precise distribution of blame is nearly impossible, and almost besides the point. Mills might be more comfortable with straight man coverage, but Jim Schwartz might be more comfortable with a cornerback who is comfortable playing whatever coverage he calls. And we might not be talking about any of this if his safety had simply executed his assignment, which he might have if Schwartz didn't feel the need to have Malcolm Jenkins playing as a cover man in the slot, which circles back to the lack of depth and versatility that the Eagles have in their cornerbacks.
"We were being very aggressive on that play," Jenkins said. "We were trying to push them back to an even longer field goal, but he got behind us and scored. It was a tough play for us."
What it comes down to is the Eagles are not a good football team. They occasionally look like one, for long enough stretches that you end up on searches for answers that do not exist. Why don't they look like a good team all of the time? Because they are not. Good football teams do not allow Michael Campanaro and Terrance West to break off runs of 39 and 41 yards, respectively. They don't allow Mike Wallace to turn a quick slant into a 54-yard catch-and-run. And they certainly don't allow Steve Smith to catch a 34-yard touchdown over the top of their secondary when the Ravens have no timeouts and 18 seconds to move the final few yards into field-goal range.
There's a reason teams call them "playmakers." The Eagles have more now than they did last year, but the voids that they have are glaring: cornerback, right defensive end, wide receiver, running back. Rewind those handful of plays the Eagles rued after the game and count how many times one of those positions was involved. The Ravens made the play at the end of the half at least in part because they had a playmaker at a position where the Eagles don't. Every other bit of blame is some derivative of that fundamental truth. Maybe it is just that simple.