The Eagles breezed past the woeful Bears, 31-3, on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field and have won nine straight. Here's what we learned:
The Eagles aren't a fluke, Part VIII. The romp parade continued. The Eagles have won their last four games by an average of 26.8 points. They've won three straight by 28-plus points for the first time in franchise history. And their NFL-leading 351 points are the most through 11 games in team annals. The magic number to win the NFC East is one, and the Eagles might not have to wait until Sunday to clinch. A Cowboys loss to the Redskins on Thursday night would do the trick. How amazing would that be – the Eagles' claiming a divisional title before the calendar even reaches December? I don't think Doug Pederson and his players could have imagined such a scenario three months ago. I certainly didn't. I've gotten plenty wrong about this squad. Some lone holdouts will point to the Eagles' last-place schedule and the fact that they have beaten only one team currently with a winning record: the 8-3 Panthers. But the Eagles can play only the teams on their slate, and they have easily disposed of all the under-.500 teams, save for the divisional-rival Redskins and Giants. If there is any lingering doubt about their legitimacy, it will likely be addressed in the coming two-game, West Coast swing. The 7-4 Seahawks are up first on Sunday night. This isn't the potent squad that went to back-to-back Super Bowls from 2013-14, but Seattle is still formidable, especially at CenturyLink Field. The 8-3 Rams will follow and probably offer a more difficult test. The Eagles will stay and practice in Southern California between games. If they return with two victories, they might need only one more win to clinch home field throughout the NFC playoffs. A 1-1 mark would be more than respectable and the Eagles would still be on track to secure at least a first-round bye. Two losses, depending upon the circumstances, wouldn't be devastating, but the Eagles would need to regroup for the final three games. I'm not sure how the fan base would react. But the past nine games shouldn't be forgotten.
Sloppiness can't even derail the Eagles. Sunday wasn't the first time the Eagles didn't have their "A" game and still won convincingly. But it was the first time they made so many unforced errors and still prevailed. They fumbled four times and would have lost all four had not a heads-up Nelson Agholor pounced on a fumble for a touchdown. They accumulated 11 penalties. Eight occurred pre-snap – four false starts and four offsides. Halapoulivaati Vaitai had two holding penalties. But the running backs' fumbles were the most concerning. LeGarrette Blount had two. Jay Ajayi had the other – the aforementioned loose ball that rolled into the end zone. They each saw the ball ripped from their hands after long gains. "We've got to fix it," Pederson said. "We'll address it this week, and [we're] going on the road now for these next three games, so we've got to be able to take care of the ball." Seattle will be cold and possibly wet. The weather won't likely be a factor in L.A. But the final three games will be in North Jersey and Philly. I have to think that running backs coach Duce Staley will amp up the ball-security drills over the next few weeks.
The run defense is nasty. The Eagles had a few leaks last week in Dallas. The Cowboys might have been without Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith, but they still had two all-pro offensive linemen and a capable back in Alfred Morris. But it wasn't as if the Eagles' front was overmatched. The Bears had a ground game arguably as strong as the Cowboys', and they could do almost nothing against Jim Schwartz's unit. The Bears entered the game averaging 131.8 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. The Eagles held them to just six rushing yards – the least they've allowed in a single game since 1950. If it wasn't for a late Mitch Trubisky 11-yard scramble, the Bears would have finished with negative-5 yards. Their running backs were held to negative-6 yards on 10 carries. That's domination. The defensive line – Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Destiny Vaeao and Elijah Qualls – certainly deserved props. But it was a group effort.
Wentz's success has become expected. At this point, Wentz's brilliance shouldn't come as a surprise. But to put his season into perspective, he is now just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 28-plus touchdowns and no more than five interceptions through 11 games. The other two were Tom Brady (2007, 2015) and Aaron Rodgers (2011, 2014). Wentz's NFL-leading 28 passing touchdowns already rank fifth in Eagles single-season history. It could be only a matter of games (or game) before he passes Sonny Jurgensen (32), Donovan McNabb (31), Randall Cunningham (30) and Norm Snead (29). Wentz has done more than just throw touchdowns. He added another to his highlight reel when he spun out of a would-be, third-down sack and scrambled 16 yards. "I knew it was a cover zero and an all-out blitz," Wentz said. "I thought our screen would be open, but the guy peeled off with him. From there, instincts just took over and I was fortunate enough to make a play." Wentz knew it was special, though. He popped up off the grass and emphatically threw his arm forward to signal the first down. Quarterbacking gets tougher on third down and in the red zone, but Wentz has bucked the conventional norms.
The Eagles' running-back diversity will make the ground game difficult to stop. The Bears have a solid backup running back in Tarik Cohen, but when workhorse Jordan Howard couldn't get going, Chicago's offense became one-dimensional. Every week, I look around the league and most of the teams that rely on one guy to carry their run game struggle if said tailback is kept in check. Le'Veon Bell might be the exception, but the Steelers have an effective passing attack to complement their ground game. And it's not as if Bell (3.9 yards per carry) is tearing it up. The Eagles have three running backs they can ride, each with his own running style. There's the north-to-south Blount, the inside-out Ajayi and the bob-and-weave Corey Clement. Blount hasn't seen his playing time diminish much since the trade for Ajayi. In fact, he led the group in snaps (37 of 78) and carries (15 for 97 yards) on Sunday. "A lot of it came down to the style of defense the Bears ran this afternoon," Pederson said in explaining why he favored Blount. "They got into a little bit of a five-man front with a five-down, really a sixth guy being the linebacker." Ajayi logged 22 snaps and five carries for 26 yards. He also had a catch for seven yards. There has been some speculation, based upon his postgame interview, that Ajayi wasn't happy with his workload. I wasn't there live, but watched it later. He seemed more upset about his fumble than anything. "I just run the plays that the coaches call," Ajayi said. "I'm happy we're winning." Clement finished with 15 snaps and four carries for 27 yards. He had one grab for 12 yards.
Zach Ertz is back. The Eagles tight end was quiet over the last month, although it's not as if he was slumping. Ertz missed the Broncos game with a hamstring strain. The Eagles then had a bye the following week. And last Sunday in Dallas, he was held to two catches for 6 yards. So the lack of a typical Ertz performance felt longer than it was in number of games. But he was in peak form against the Bears. Ertz caught 10 of 12 targets for 103 yards and a touchdown. Both his catches and receiving yards were team highs, and he became the Eagles' first 100-plus-yard receiver this season. Ertz was open on the two throws that weren't caught, but Wentz was inaccurate. Ertz has put up numbers this season (55 catches for 639 yards and seven touchdowns) that exceeded his production in the first three months over his first four years in the NFL. It should be interesting to see how he does over the final month when he typically gets hot.
The Eagles have enough playmakers. One of the criticisms I've received from various sources around the league that don't yet believe in the Eagles' legitimacy is that they don't have an elite playmaker – a skill-position player who can carry the offense no matter the situation. I often point to Wentz as that player. He can run, but he can't catch his passes. Alshon Jeffery hasn't yet been the No. 1 receiver that the Eagles paid for, but he has been more effective over the last month, particularly on third down and in the red zone. I wrote about his day against his former team for my newspaper column. He can break out down the stretch and into the postseason. Ertz is clearly a top-tier tight end and could fill that role. Agholor has been more of a complementary piece, but his touch-to-big-play ratio has been better than any other Eagle. The Eagles might not have a Julio Jones-, Rob Gronkowski-, Antonio Brown-type stud, but does that matter? They have three players with six-plus receiving touchdowns (Ertz 7, Agholor 6, Jeffery 6) this season. But how will that translate against better defenses and in the postseason? Time will tell.
The Eagles get better in the red zone. As I mentioned above, the red zone is often where quarterbacks struggle. The field is shorter and the lanes get tighter. But Wentz's response after the game when asked about the Eagles' success inside the 20 was interesting because he spoke of the red zone in an advantageous way. "The tighter you get to the red zone, the defense has to declare their coverage a little more," Wentz said. "In the back of our heads, we have those things we can go to versus different looks." The Eagles have been remarkably efficient. They've converted 71.2 percent (28 of 39) of their red-zone possessions into touchdowns. Only two other teams are within 10 percentage points of the Eagles: the Packers (67.8 pct.) and Raiders (64 pct.).
The group celebrations are fun. Let's leave it at that. Pederson had a point when he cautioned about taking too long to celebrate. You don't want to see your offense take a delay-of-game penalty because it took 40 seconds to rack the pins. But I can see mostly positives with the group celebrations. They're not offensive, they're not directed at the other team, and they're indicative of a group that enjoys playing together. The Eagles are winning and they're having fun, or they're having fun and they're winning. I think there's a correlation. "I've been on a 13-0 team in my first year in the league," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "As a rookie, I was so locked in on trying to prepare and play that I really didn't get to soak it in and enjoy it. Obviously, this is my ninth season and I've been taking it in. This is definitely the most fun I've had in my career." Some Bears players took exception to the celebrations, as least based upon postgame comments. The "Electric Slide" dances after the interceptions seemed to rankle the most. There is a thin line. But I don't think the Eagles meant any disrespect. "Every time I'm asked about what it is to me, it's fun," Agholor said. "It's just straight-up fun."
And some leftovers: Jake Elliott, who left the Dallas game early with a concussion, had a shaky early moment when his kickoff sailed out of bounds. But he made all four extra points and stroked a 45-yard field goal. And when asked to boom one kickoff, he had a touchback. … Brandon Graham notched a career-best seventh sack. … With interceptions by Jenkins and safety Corey Graham, the Eagles have six defensive backs with at least two picks.