Eagles can't defend performance that raises unsettling questions
Birds' defense makes Eli Manning look ageless, until the very end.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eagles safety Corey Graham leaped for the ball at the back of the end zone, fighting hand-to-hand for position with New York Giants tight end Evan Engram, who argued for interference, to no avail.
Graham was able to make sure the Eli Manning fourth-down pass fell harmlessly beyond the boundary with 43 seconds left in the game, and at that moment, two things were undeniably true:
The Eagles were about to go to 12-2, and gain a first-round playoff bye, courtesy of their 34-29 victory.
By no means should the 2017 NFC East champions have been clawing and scratching on fourth down in the final minute, backed against their end zone, by a team that hadn't scored as many as 20 points in any of its previous four games, was about to fall to 2-12 despite posting its highest point total of the season, had just unbenched its starting quarterback a week earlier, and was playing under an interim head coach.
"You can't play like this and win in the postseason, obviously," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.
That was not a unanimous view.
"When it was on the line, guys stepped up and made the plays we needed to be victorious today," Graham said, which was one way of framing an afternoon in which Manning completed 37 of 57 passes for a season-high 434 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. "They did a good job, man. … They get paid, too; it ain't like they're out there for charity. … Obviously, as a defense, you want to avoid some of those situations."
There have been quite a few situations the Eagles' defense wouldn't have minded avoiding over the past three weeks, in giving up three touchdown passes to Russell Wilson in Seattle, then a pair of TDs by air and two more by land at the hands of Jared Goff in Los Angeles, before helping Manning turn back the clock a decade or so on Sunday.
What if playoff success hinges not on making up for Carson Wentz's absence, but on not facing a veteran quarterback who knows when blitzes are coming?
"I knew there was a good chance they were going to go to my guy," Graham said, Engram having managed eight catches on 13 targets for 87 yards. "I'm going to have to be outside leverage on that play, and make sure you're looking back for the ball so you don't get that penalty. You just gotta play the ball. … If you're playing the ball, it's all 50-50.
"It was a zone coverage, but when it's all said and done, [in the end zone], you've got your guy."
And when it was all said and done, the Eagles were ahead on the scoreboard, thanks to a special-teams effort that included a blocked extra point, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt, and thanks to Nick Foles stepping in for Wentz and throwing four touchdown passes.
"Early on, we were kind of unsettled, a little bit … weren't really ourselves," safety Rodney McLeod said, referring to a first quarter that saw Manning – minus injured receivers Odell Beckham Jr., and Brandon Marshall – complete 11 of 15 passes for 132 yards, putting him on a 528-yard pace for the game. "Obviously, we bounced back when it counted. It's something we've got to fix, and we know that. … It's just the basics, though. … Just have good eyes, man. Read three-step [drops]. Tackle better, myself included."
The Giants killed the Eagles with quick slants, when they weren't killing them down the sideline. Top cornerback Ronald Darby, despite an interception return that got the Birds into the game when they trailed 20-7, had a horrible day, often matched against speedy Sterling Shepard, who caught 11 passes on 16 targets for 139 yards and a touchdown.
Darby was not available for comment afterward.
"You've got to be able to stop the quick passing game and tackle in space. Early in the game, we didn't do that well at all," said Malcolm Jenkins, who started at safety but moved to nickel corner after Patrick Robinson left with a concussion. "A few things like pace and tempo have bothered us the last couple of games; we need to make sure that we communicate effectively, that we hold our leverage and that we execute our defense. … Defensively, I don't think anybody's happy with the way we performed."
The Giants scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. Then the Eagles seemed to gather themselves, allowing just three points on the Giants' next five possessions. The visitors looked poised to pull away, with a 31-23 lead, but Najee Goode was called for encroachment on a fourth-and-4 punt from the Giants' 26. Five plays later, Tavarres King ran away from Darby with a short slant, 57 yards for a touchdown, and from then on, it was a scramble.
"A lot of big plays. … It was not like they gave us a bunch of gadget plays, they did exactly what we knew they'd do, we weren't able to stop it," Jenkins said. "There's a lot we're going to learn from this tape."
At one point in the first half, TV cameras caught Robinson on the sideline seemingly going at secondary coach Cory Undlin, and injured corner Sidney Jones grabbing Robinson and leading him away.
"Everybody was frustrated. We were playing horse[bleep] at that point in time, to be honest, on defense, especially in the secondary," Jenkins said. "We had to kind of reel it back in, settle everybody down, and once we did that, got back to playing our technique, playing our scheme, and putting ourselves in good position – we had success."
Manning generally got rid of the ball quickly, blunting the Eagles' pass rush. They managed just one sack of the soon-to-be-37-year-old QB. (The one on the two-point conversion try doesn't count in the stats.)
Defensive end Chris Long said: "The sky isn't falling. It wasn't falling when they scored 24 on us in the third week of the season [the Eagles winning on a final-play 61-yard field goal]. We're going to improve, we're going to get better, and we'll be at our best" in the playoffs.
Where they won't have to play the Giants.