LONDON – It wasn't a must-win game, but the Eagles would have been teetering on the edge had they lost Sunday. They did not. It wasn't pretty — again — but they held off the Jaguars, 24-18, at Wembley Stadium.
A 4-4 record sounds a lot better than 3-5. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles enter the bye with momentum – however tenuous. The Eagles lost the turnover battle, 2-1. They committed untimely penalties. Carson Wentz was sacked four times. The defense missed tackles and assignments. If Jaguars receiver D.J. Chark hadn't dropped a fourth-quarter, would-be touchdown, the result could have been the opposite.
The point is that there is little difference between the Eagles and most of the teams they've faced thus far. This isn't the 2017 squad. That ship has sailed. Right now, there are about five teams at the top of the NFL (Rams, Chiefs, Saints, Patriots, Chargers), five teams at the bottom (Raiders, Giants, 49ers, Cardinals, Bills), and everyone else. The Eagles are with everyone else. They can climb into the next tier. They have half a season remaining. But my guess is that they'll teeter along as they did in the first half. There are too many issues that are unlikely to go away.
When the locker room opened postgame, music was blaring and players were dancing. Jason Peters was the DJ. It wasn't anywhere near the celebration the Eagles had after the Super Bowl, but it was the most jubilant they've been since that night. Peters and other veterans conceded as much. Why? The Panthers loss the week before was devastating. Having to head overseas didn't make matters any better. The Eagles could have used the travel, the lost sleep, and the foreign soil as an excuse. They could have packed it in.
But they prevailed and might have saved their season. It's too early to say that for certain. But they head into the break with some wind at their backs. They're a game and a half behind the 5-2 Redskins in the NFC East, but they have five divisional games left and two each against the teams ahead of them and directly behind them (the 3-4 Cowboys) in the standings. But they've yet to string two wins together. Winning has been fleeting and the time off – another reason for the players' postgame mood – could cancel out any momentum. There's still a lot of work remaining.
2. The Eagles can't rely on their offense or defense to carry the load. Having one superior unit isn't exactly a recipe for success. You need both to win. But there are games when one side must shoulder the brunt (see: Eagles offense in the Super Bowl). Neither unit could fill that role against the Panthers. It was a complete fourth-quarter collapse.
But each side did enough to overcome the Jaguars' comeback. The offense responded after the defense allowed nine straight points with a six-play, 75-yard, touchdown drive early in the fourth. The defense did its part by first forcing a field goal on the ensuing series, and then by stopping the Jaguars on fourth down after the offense went three and out. Wentz and the offense then nailed down the game with two first downs.
A win over the 3-5 Jaguars isn't anything to write home about. They had lost their three previous games by a combined 90-28. They were without their top offensive weapon (running back Leonard Fournette). Quarterback Blake Bortles has been dreadful. Several defensive players had been detained by London police just the night before after an incident involving an unpaid check at a burlesque show. The Eagles of 2017, particularly the offense, would have smoked these Jaguars.
3. Doug Pederson can still be aggressive. The Eagles coach has gambled on fourth down this season. He's rolled the dice with two-point conversions. But he hasn't pressed the gas in late-first-half situations and when the Eagles have held second-half leads. He doesn't have the offense he had a year ago, but he still has Wentz and skill-position weapons.
I wasn't particularly fond of his play-calling when the Eagles, trailing by 6-3, got the ball with 2 minutes, 43 seconds left before halftime. On first down, he had Wentz throw short to tight end Zach Ertz on a naked bootleg for no gain. On second down, he called a run. The Eagles were at their own 12, but that was a conservative call. Wendell Smallwood picked up only three yards, and after an incomplete pass on third down, the Eagles punted.
But when safety Avonte Maddox forced a fumble just a few plays later, Pederson had Wentz throwing downfield. The quarterback just missed an open Nelson Agholor on a deep crosser on first down, but I like the aggressiveness. And then after Wentz converted a long third down with a scramble, Pederson called a vertical pass play that freed tight end Dallas Goedert downfield. Wentz hit the rookie for a 32-yard touchdown, and the tide had turned.
The Eagles had five completions of more than 30 yards. They've lacked quick-strike drives this season. But their fourth-quarter touchdown that negated the Jaguars' comeback came on a drive that lasted a little more than three minutes.
4. Avonte Maddox might have a future at safety. If the Eagles go on to greater success, they might look back at rookie Avonte Maddox's forced fumble as a season-turning play. The Jaguars had completed a 15-yard pass into Eagles territory when Maddox came up and jarred the ball loose from receiver Keelan Cole. It was a textbook tackle.
That wasn't Maddox's lone big play. In the first quarter, the Jaguars ran on third-and-1 at the Eagles' 32. Maddox filled his gap and dropped Carlos Hyde for a 1-yard loss, and the Jaguars had to settle for a field goal. Rodney McLeod is done for the season with torn a ACL and MCL in his knee. His future with the Eagles is uncertain. Maddox was drafted as a slot cornerback. He never played safety before stepping in last month. He's had his ups and downs, but he's shown an aptitude for the position, despite his relative lack of size. He could be McLeod's permanent replacement.
>> UP-DOWN DRILL: Avonte Maddox, Dallas Goedert, Jordan Matthews trending up
The Eagles have been without slot cornerback Sidney Jones (hamstring), and having Dexter McDougle there isn't justifiable. They could lose another corner for an extended period if Jalen Mills' foot injury lingers. Mills left the game early and was replaced by Rasul Douglas. With Tuesday's trade deadline looming, Howie Roseman could address the holes in the secondary.
5. The Eagles can win without Carson Wentz's "A" game. It took only seven plays for Wentz to get sacked. Nose tackle Marcell Dareus blindsided the quarterback from behind, and the ball was out. It's hard to criticize Wentz for the giveaway, but he's fumbled five times in six games. He had only a combined six fumbles in his first two seasons.
He was critical of himself after the game. He was the dutiful quarterback. He wasn't as hard on himself when it came to an interception he tossed a series later, though. He credited corner Jalen Ramsey with making the play, but he probably shouldn't have lofted that pass into the middle of the end zone. Wentz did concede that it was a bad read.
Nevertheless, two turnovers in two possessions aren't a good way to start a game. But Wentz rebounded and had another performance that marked his improvement in Year 3. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes (again), had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of more than 2 to 1 (again), and converted six third downs. Did he miss a few throws? Sure. Did he hold the ball too long a few times? Yep.
But he's still working his way back after missing nine months, the preseason, and the first two games of the season. Wentz hasn't reached his ceiling. He can still be better. Which is scary.
6. The offensive-line situation hasn't gotten better. Center Jason Kelce limped off the field early Sunday, but he returned after missing one play. Left tackle Peters left to be evaluated for a concussion, and returned after missing about a quarter. But right tackle Lane Johnson, who hobbled off early with a knee injury, never came back. He has a Grade II MCL sprain and could miss about a month. He had already been playing with a high ankle sprain.
Johnson hasn't been great this season, but the drop-off to Halapoulivaati Vaitai is significant. The good news is that Vaitai is a better starter with time to prepare. He got into groove at left tackle as the Eagles went on their run last season. He could do the same on the other side. But he's been shaky since the preseason. Pederson might need to scheme ways to protect Big V, at least early on.
7. Jim Schwartz can blitz. Colleague Paul Domowitch wrote a great story about Schwartz's blitz-happy game plan. "Blitzing Jimmy" typically doesn't like to rush more than four. He was criticized last week for not blitzing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton enough. I don't know if it would have made a difference. You live by the blitz, you can just as easily die.
But the four-man rush clearly wasn't getting the job done in the fourth quarter. I thought that Schwartz needed to shake things up. I doubt that Schwartz has suddenly become Buddy Ryan. He saw a struggling quarterback whom he could attack. It worked early. Bortles was sacked three times and hit several times more by the break. The Jaguars seemed to adjust after halftime. Bortles threw a touchdown when the Eagles blitzed. But the damage had been done. Bortles didn't know what to expect on certain downs because Schwartz had established the blitz.
8. The Eagles received contributions from two players who weren't on the 53-man roster at the season's start. Receiver Jordan Matthews caught four passes for 93 yards. Running back Josh Adams rushed nine times for 61 yards and caught a pass for six yards. While Ertz (four catches for 26 yards and a touchdown) and receiver Alshon Jeffery (four catches for 35 yards) were mere mortals, and while Smallwood (eight carries for 24 yards) and Corey Clement (four carries for six yards) struggled to get going on the ground, Matthews and Adams stepped up.
I don't know how many more times they'll have similar games moving forward, but opposing defenses will have to spend more time preparing for both. Matthews isn't an ideal outside receiver. But he's getting the job done at least until Mike Wallace returns or Roseman makes a trade. Adams is a rookie. He hasn't played much on third down. But he could make the Eagles think twice about dealing for a running back before the deadline.
9. The defensive line sustained the loss of Derek Barnett. When Barnett was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, rookie Josh Sweat became the story. He would be the fourth defensive end, and his time would increase in Schwartz's heavy rotation up front.
It did not – at least Sunday. Sweat played just four of 64 snaps. Schwartz went primarily with a three-man rotation at end: Michael Bennett (55 snaps), Brandon Graham (51), and Chris Long (40). The Eagles did get Haloti Ngata (26 snaps) back after he missed the previous two games with a calf strain. That meant that Schwartz had four defensive tackles and that Bennett and Graham didn't have to slide inside as much. But is having Bennett, Graham and Long play as much as they did – they're all older than 30 – sustainable over the long haul?