CINCINNATI – Doug Pederson gathered his players in a losing locker room Sunday and told them the season could go in one of two directions. He tried convincing them that it will only go up, as if the previous three hours did not offer all the evidence needed for the direction of his team.
Whatever message Pederson wanted to send his players last week was either not delivered effectively or not received attentively, because the Eagles looked even worse in a 32-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday than they have at any other point this season.
The Eagles' third consecutive loss came to a team that entered Sunday with only three wins this season and only one since September. But the Eagles proved to be the inferior team, falling to 5-7 and watching a once-promising season deteriorate with seven losses in nine weeks while extinguishing any optimism that remained.
"Obviously very disappointed in the way we played," Pederson said. "All the things we're not doing right now are the things we've got to get back to doing."
It's likely too late. With four games remaining against teams with winning records, the frightening part for the Eagles is that Sunday might not be the nadir of the season. It could still get worse.
"Obviously we're on a skid," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "There's really nothing to change. We've just got to lock in."
If only it were that easy. Wentz, the source of any optimism about the Eagles, had perhaps his worst game of the season. The rookie threw three interceptions for the first time, and that number could have been even higher. He finished 36 for 60 for 308 yards and one touchdown.
Wentz played without lead wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was out with an ankle injury. Tight end Zach Ertz had nine catches for 79 yards and the score, and Paul Turner finished with six catches for 80 yards. The Eagles rushed only 19 times for 53 yards, with Wendell Smallwood's 19 yards leading the team.
The defense allowed 412 yards, and the Bengals converted six of their first eight third downs. The Eagles went another week without a sack. Cincinnati scored on its first six drives of the game and had a 29-point lead before the Eagles even scored a point.
"We're not that team that can go out there and make mistakes and still get away with it," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "Obviously, it's showing up these last couple of games. … We were killing on first and second down, and just third down we couldn't get off the field."
The problems started from the first quarter. With a 3-0 lead, the Bengals went on an eight-play, 81-yard drive that included two third-down conversions. One was a 50-yard pass from Andy Dalton to Cody Core in which the rookie receiver beat Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll. Jeremy Hill rushed for a 2-yard score and a 10-0 lead.
"I looked up and I thought he pushed me," Carroll said. "[Coverage problems] can't keep happening week in and week out."
The Eagles had a chance to keep the lead within one possession when they drove into Bengals territory. Pederson called a draw play on third and 9 from Cincinnati's 32-yard line and Smallwood was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. That meant the Eagles needed to attempt a 51-yard field goal, which Caleb Sturgis clanked off the right upright.
The Bengals' lead swelled to 19-0 at halftime, and they added a touchdown to begin the third quarter. With a 26-0 deficit, Wentz threw his first interception. He was lucky that was only his first.
"Throw the ball 60 times, you're going to miss some," Wentz said.
The penalties then came under focus. The Eagles had back-to-back personal fouls, two of the Eagles' 10 penalties in the game. The 30 yards granted to Cincinnati led to a touchdown and a 29-0 lead.
"This entire team, we've just got to be more disciplined," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "Not shoot ourselves in the foot, quite frankly."
The Eagles cut into the Bengals' margin, but could never make it more than a two-possession game. Wentz found Ertz for a 13-yard touchdown with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and then the defense forced a fumble on the next possession.
Wentz responded by throwing his second interception of the game — a pass that sailed too high, which has been a problem for Wentz throughout the season.
"Strictly mechanics," Pederson said.
"I don't think it's the mechanics," Wentz said of his problems.
The Eagles made it a 29-14 game after a 15-play, 64-yard drive that included two fourth-down conversions. When the defense forced a fumble, the Eagles had a chance to come within one possession. They even drove down into Bengals territory. But on a third and 3 from the 31-yard line, Wentz threw a pass that might as well have been intended for Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who intercepted Wentz for the second time in the game.
"He was blitzing and he kind of read out of it and made a really good play," Wentz said.
The second-half scoring should not shroud what happened on Sunday. The players tried claiming that the fourth-quarter production showed that they haven't quit, but the 29-0 deficit and a three-game losing streak were all the evidence needed for a team in free fall.
"We still have a month of football left," Pederson said. "We have to dig ourselves out of this hole, and it starts next week."