The Eagles defense has come alive. The question now is: did it happen too late?
After struggling for most of the season, and contributing a large share to a 4-8 start, Juan Castillo's defense has powered the Eagles to two consecutive wins, including Sunday's 45-19 blow out of the Jets.
With the offense often gifted excellent field position, the Eagles ran wild on a Ryan-led defense for the second time this year. After scorching Rob Ryan's Cowboys unit for 34 points Oct. 30, the Eagles took apart Rex Ryan's group Sunday and get another shot at Rob this coming Saturday.
The Eagles win, coupled with a Giants loss to Washington, leaves Philadelphia alive in the hunt for the NFC East title, but barely. The Eagles could be eliminated from the division race by the time they take the field at 4:15 p.m. in Dallas. A Giants win over the Jets (in a 1p.m. game Saturday) would knock the Eagles out by assuring either the Giants or Cowboys of finishing with nine wins, since New York and Dallas play in the final week of the season.
To have any chance at the division crown – their only path to the playoffs -- Andy Reid's team has to beat Dallas and then the Redskins to close out the season. They also need the Giants to lose Saturday to the Jets, and then beat the Cowboys in the final game of the season. A Cowboys win in either of their last two games would eliminate the Eagles. The Eagles were knocked out of the Wild Card race when Detroit beat Oakland Sunday.
The Eagles put up their largest point total of the season, and LeSean McCoy broke the team record for touchdowns in a season by notching three, but the defense was the story for a second straight week. They scored the game's opening touchdown themselves – on a 47-yard Juqua Parker fumble return -- saved a potential Jets' score with an Asante Samuel interception deep in their own territory, leading to a touchdown, and set up a third score by stripping quarterback Mark Sanchez at the Jets' 17. Those plays accounted for or set up 21 of the Eagles' points and bailed out the special teams unit, which gave the ball away deep in Eagles territory on a muffed punt.
In all, the defense generated four turnovers – leading to 21 points (including Parker's run back)-- and four sacks, including three by a surging Jason Babin. They confused Sanchez with stunts and linebacker blitzes and, after allowing a few big runs early, stuffed burly running back Shonn Greene.
The defense's play was enough to overcome four Eagles turnovers and some untimely penalties that threatened to allow the Jets to rally after Philadelphia took a 28-0 lead.
The Eagles put the game out of reach, though, with a defensive stand at the end of the first half and a score early in the third quarter. The defense held the Jets to a field goal to keep the score at 28-13, and quickly built up to a 35-13 lead in the second half, sparked by a 73-yard Brent Celek catch and run. McCoy's one-yard run after Celek's catch broke the team records for rushing touchdowns in a season and overall touchdowns in a season.
Babin had three sacks for the second consecutive game – becoming the 10th player in NFL history to accomplish that feat and giving him 18 on the year. He's the third Eagle to have that many sacks in a season – joining Reggie White and Clyde Simmons – and is now tied for third in Eagles history for most sacks in a season. (White holds the team's single season record with 21 in 1987).
McCoy broke the team record for touchdowns in a season and rushing scores in a year by scoring three on the ground, giving him 20 on the season and 17 on the ground. The old records were 18 total and 15 rushing by Steve Van Buren, both in 1945. Only 21 players have had 20 or more touchdowns in a season.
McCoy finished with 18 yards on 102 carries, a 5.7 yard average. Vick improved from his shaky performance in Miami last week, going 15 for 22 passing with one touchdown and one interception and Brent Celek had a career-high 156 yards receiving and a touchdown on five catches.
By mid-way through the fourth quarter backup Vince Young was in the game and the Eagles were simply running out the clock.
With nine minutes left in the game the stands at Lincoln Financial Field were nearly empty. But instead of leaving early in disgust, fans went home to find warmth, comfortable in the fact that the Eagles would secure a win and be alive for another week.
The next time the Eagles play at home is Jan. 1. The question is: will it still matter then? The Eagles need some help and a win in Dallas to make it relevant.