FOXBORO, Mass. – The obituaries on the Eagles season should be put on hold.
The Eagles responded to two embarrassing losses with a stunning, 35-28 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, an improbable outcome that puts the 5-7 Eagles back in playoff contention.
The criticism of Chip Kelly might have risen during the last two weeks, but it might soften when the bandwagon grows this week. The tumult from a three-game losing streak was felt in the locker room, where players understood the disappointment of a November that went awry.
"I'm not sure anybody outside that locker room gave us a chance," Bradford said.
The motivation came from owner Jeffrey Lurie, a New England native, encouraging the players individually in the locker room before the game. His intensity was palpable - "That's the most fired up I've seen Lurie in a while," tackle Lane Johnson said - and linebacker Brandon Graham said Lurie's message was to "play angry."
The motivation came from personal highlight reels Kelly showed on Saturday night to try to reassure his players of their capabilities, that the losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit were not an accurate reflection of the team.
The motivation came from Bradford, who felt it was necessary to shed his reserve and share his confidence with teammates in a pregame message.
"We were all on edge; we knew what was at stake," Johnson said. "We knew coming in here, this team doesn't lose very often. I knew it would take all three phases to get this win. It wasn't pretty, but we got it done."
The Eagles used three nonoffensive touchdowns to turn a deficit into a big lead, and they were able to hold on despite a fourth-quarter scare.
With the New York Giants losing Sunday, the Eagles are only a half-game behind the Washington Redskins for a first-place tie in the division. Washington will play Monday against Dallas.
The Eagles host the Buffalo Bills next weekend.
Sunday's win came with Kelly making some personnel changes with underperforming players. DeMarco Murray had a reduced role on offense, with the Eagles using Darren
Sproles and Kenjon Barner more than in the last two weeks.
The Eagles did not win because of those moves, but a team that was listless in November was invigorated in a setting where opponents seldom win. The Patriots lost their first home game of the season and just their seventh in six years.
"You've got a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach and a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback - maybe the best quarterback to ever play this game," Kelly said. "You're aware of that. His record here is off the charts. ... But I guess we always have the mind-set, `We won, what's the next game?' "
Bradford returned after missing two weeks and completed 14 of 24 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Sproles led rushers with 66 yards, and he also returned a punt for a score. The Eagles twice intercepted Tom Brady and sacked him four times.
The game changed during an 11-minute stretch in which the Eagles returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, and a punt for a touchdown.
The Patriots were ready to enter halftime with a 14-7 lead when they sent their punting unit onto the field with 15 seconds remaining. The Eagles special teams, with more blunders than highlights, turned the play into one that could alter the course of the season.
Chris Maragos charged unblocked through the line and knocked Ryan Allen's punt to the ground. Najee Goode scooped the ball and returned it 24 yards to tie the game eight seconds before halftime.
The Patriots appeared ready to retake the lead seven minutes into the second half, when they drove to the 1-yard line. But after they kept the Patriots out of the end zone on back-to-back plays, Malcolm Jenkins made the biggest play when he caught a deflected ball off the hands of Walter Thurmond for an interception and ran 99 yards to the end zone. The Eagles had a lead. The Patriots were bleeding.
"I probably owe Walter Thurmond a Christmas gift," Jenkins said. "He really, in my mind, made that play. I just kind of took the glory for it."
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis endured criticism during the last two weeks, when the Eagles allowed 90 points in two games. But Davis' unit bothered Brady all afternoon, penetrating into the backfield and forcing Brady into uncomfortable throws. Brady said that the Eagles' scheme forced him to hold the ball longer.
Brady could not respond after the interception with a score - only a punt. And the Eagles' punt-return team again didn't allow the offense to take the field. Sproles caught the kick at his 17-yard line and returned it 83 yards for a 28-14 lead. The Eagles sideline erupted; the stadium went silent.
"Our special-teams coach came to me and said, `They are going to give us one today,' "
Sproles said. "And they gave us one. They gave us a line drive, and they gave us space. It gave me time to see where my blockers were."
After a Byron Maxwell interception, the Eagles responded by driving 80 yards in 12 plays. Bradford rolled out and found Jordan Matthews crossing the middle for the 35-14 lead for his second third-down touchdown of the game.
"I think any time you miss a couple games because of injuries, you're not exactly sure how you're going to come back," Bradford said. "I felt I was playing really well before I got hurt. I didn't know exactly what it was going to be like tonight because of the shoulder. I felt I made the plays when they had to be made."
The Patriots scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession game. When Barner fumbled with 62 seconds remaining to give the Patriots one last chance, the Eagles' effort was in danger of being spoiled. But Davis' unit held, and the Eagles ran to the locker room to celebrate.
They return to Philadelphia this week with a legitimate chance to make the postseason if they can replicate Sunday's performance. Four games remain - the next three at home - to show whether the hope is merited, or whether Sunday will be the highlight of an otherwise forgettable season.
"I've said it: We'll pick our head up [at the end of the season] and see if we played well enough to get in or not," Kelly said. "I think it's just wasted energy to talk about the playoff picture."