An Eagles season that began with such promise after a 3-0 start will end on Sunday in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys. Expecting a postseason bid in the rookie seasons of coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz might have been unrealistic, but the Eagles created new expectations after their scorching September.
What followed were too many close losses that could have been wins but for a few plays. The Eagles were 0-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer before a Week 16 victory over the New York Giants. When the players disperse on Monday, it will be those close games that are most lamented.
"When you look back on the season, it's going to come down to about six or seven plays that could change the outcome of your season and flip it for you," Pederson said.
Here are seven of those plays:
1 The Eagles held a 23-21 lead late in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 9 and needed to run out the clock to remain undefeated. On a third-and-2 play at the Eagles' 45-yard line, running back Ryan Mathews stretched around the right side and fumbled after meeting Lions cornerback Darius Slay. The Lions recovered to set up a game-winning field goal. Wentz threw his first interception on the opening play of the ensuing drive to thwart any comeback attempt, and the Eagles fell to 3-1. The Eagles had an 84 percent chance of winning the game right before Mathews' fumble, according to ESPN's win probability chart.
"I just [messed] up," Mathews said. "I've got to get better in situations like that. I can't let my teammates down. I've got to get better."
2 Wentz was sacked on the first and final offensive plays of a 27-20 loss to the Washington Redskins on Oct. 16. The Redskins sacked Wentz five times that game - the first of Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension. You can pick which sack was the defining play of this close loss, but there were enough to choose from during a game in which Wentz was hit 12 times.
Pederson chose to replace Johnson with rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who had not taken a snap before that game. It was a deviation from the team's previous plan to go with a veteran-laden offensive line in Johnson's absence. But the sacks on Wentz that day - and the way Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan overpowered Vaitai - were a major factor in the Eagles' second loss of the season.
"Started out just trying to get his legs," Pederson said of Vaitai. "Had a couple of missed assignments early and felt like he settled into the game as the game wore on. We used more help on his side as the game wore on, as well, really on both edges."
3 The season might have been different had the Eagles kept their seven-point lead after driving into Dallas Cowboys territory with a little more than seven minutes to go in a 29-23 overtime loss on Oct. 30. On a third-and-8 play from the Cowboys' 30-yard line, the Eagles only needed a few yards to put the ball into range for a Caleb Sturgis field goal. Pederson called a swing pass to Darren Sproles that was stuffed for a 6-yard loss. The Eagles missed a block, but the play design was scrutinized for days. Pederson elected to punt instead of attempting a 54-yard field goal, and the Cowboys drove downfield to tie the game.
They scored a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime, and the Eagles returned home with their third loss of the season.
"We busted one assignment, and a negative play happened," Pederson said. "We make that play, we are inside the 20-yard line. When you look at it on film, we're inside the 20-yard line with a first and 10. Or if anything, at worst, it's a fourth down and you're kicking the field goal from a lot closer in than what happened."
4 Even after failing to convert on two fourth downs in scoring range during a 28-23 loss to the Giants, the Eagles still had a chance to win late in the fourth quarter when they entered the red zone with two minutes remaining. On fourth and 10 from the 17-yard line, Wentz tried connecting with Jordan Matthews on a potential game-winning touchdown. The Eagles ran the slot fade pattern that's worked other times with Wentz and Matthews. The play is designed for Matthews when he is in one-on-one coverage, and is supposed to be thrown out in front of him. Wentz sailed the pass a little too far toward the sideline, and the ball bounced incomplete.
"It was thrown a little bit more to his outside than where we'd like, more up-the-field throw," Pederson said. "Just poor execution."
Matthews didn't want to put the blame on Wentz, and he said as recently as last week that the play will stick with him during the offseason. Last week, Pederson mentioned one of the fourth-down play calls as a decision he'd like back.
5 In a forgettable season for Nelson Agholor, the play that drew the most ire came in the second quarter of a 26-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 20. It's hard enough to win in Seattle, and it's worth wondering what would be different if Agholor were not the culprit on an illegal formation penalty that negated a 57-yard touchdown catch by Zach Ertz when the Eagles trailed, 13-7.
The Eagles did not have enough players on the line of scrimmage because Agholor did not check with the side judge. The penalty took points off the board that could have given the Eagles a lead. The Eagles punted, the Seahawks added a field goal before halftime, and the game was never as close again.
"I've got to get out of my own head," Agholor said. "Pressing so much and worried about so much things."
6 Wentz had another opportunity for a potential game-winning drive in a 27-22 loss to Washington on Dec. 11. The quarterback missed his chance for a signature moment after leading the Eagles all the way to Washington's 14-yard line because the right tackle problems came to a head again. Johnson was still suspended, Vaitai had since been injured, and Allen Barbre was shelved with a hamstring injury. Matt Tobin played right tackle, but he suffered a knee injury on the penultimate play. Tobin stayed in the game and could not stop Kerrigan from racing past him and sacking Wentz, jarring the ball loose. The Redskins recovered, and the Eagles were left with their fourth consecutive loss.
"We're 14 yards away from winning," left tackle Jason Peters said. "Then we wouldn't even be bringing up the stuff that went wrong."
7 The dramatic late-game drive that eluded Wentz for much of the season finally arrived in a 27-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 18. With the Eagles down seven, Wentz led the team on a 59-yard touchdown march and scrambled into the end zone with four seconds remaining in the game. The celebration was short-lived, because the Eagles elected to go for the two-point conversion to win the game. The Ravens sent a blitz, Wentz's pass to Matthews was deflected, and the Eagles clinched a losing season. Pederson stood by his aggressive nature of trying to win in regulation, but the missed conversion offered talk radio fodder the next day.
"There's always a few plays that decide the game," Wentz said. "This one just happened to be the final one."
There could be other plays added to the list. But after the season ends on Sunday and the Eagles reflect on another year without the playoffs, they'll remember the close games that swung on a few key plays. The teams that make the playoffs can usually make a list of the plays that decided close wins.
"It's such a fine line in this league," Pederson said. "You are a play or two away from your season being totally different. Of the thousands of plays that you execute throughout the year, it's going to come down to just a handful of those plays. And that's the difference."