Ronald Darby had only played in front of the home Eagles fans once before Monday night. He hadn't known what it was like to win before the Lincoln Financial faithful in a game with playoff implications, let alone to be the hero.
But the cornerback went from goat to champion in a matter of a week – as quick as a Philadelphia minute during Eagles season. Darby's fourth-quarter, last-minute interception set up Jake Elliott's 48-yard game-winning field goal as the Eagles topped the feisty Raiders, 19-10, and clinched the No. 1 NFC seed.
For the second game in a row, Darby came up with a game-turning turnover. But his pick against the New York Giants was the lone positive on his ledger. He had what he said was one of the worst games of his career.
His performance, naturally, upset fans. But when he darted from the postgame locker room without answering questions and then began publicly blocking any of his critics on social media, some followers turned on Darby.
But he answered the music a few days later, apologized for his actions and that seemed to be enough for most. What mattered most, and if the Eagles are to truly make a postseason run without Carson Wentz, was that Darby rebounded on the field and that the defense saved the day.
"Like my boys were telling me, this ain't going to be the last time I hear the bad side of the Eagles fans," Darby said. "I'm a good player this week, but any time down the road I'm going to be the worst player in the world again. That's just how it is. You got to have a short memory."
On a night when Nick Foles and the offense struggled, Jim Schwartz's defense came up time and again in the second half. His unit forced four turnovers from the middle of the third quarter until Darby's pick – a Patrick Robinson interception, and Mychal Kendricks and Malcolm Jenkins forced fumbles came before.
Each one seemingly more important than the previous one. A last-second fumble by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr that Derek Barnett scooped and scored was the fifth and final of the game.
"We needed all five to win the game," Jenkins said. "It was just one of those games when the defense needed to get stops for our offense. … It was the exact opposite of last week."
Darby's came with just 54 ticks left on the clock. The Raiders faced second-and-10 on their own 48. Derek Carr, who had been confounded by the Eagles' pass defense for almost the entire night, dropped, surveyed the field, and threw to receiver Amari Cooper.
But Darby jumped the route and secured the catch at the Eagles 48. Six plays later, Elliott kicked his second game-winner this season.
"Coop one of the hardest dudes in the league to get your hands on off the line," Darby said. "When he started out slow I just stayed square the whole time. And then when he made that step, boom, I just flipped and looked for the ball and I caught it."
Earlier in the fourth, the Raiders drove deep into Eagles territory for at least the go-ahead field goal. Schwartz's defense needed a stop. Or a turnover. They got the latter when Jenkins ripped the ball from Jalen Richard's grasp just before his rear touched the grass. The Eagles safety pounced on the fumble at the 16.
It was the second time the defense had to respond to a second-half Eagles turnover. Earlier, Jay Ajayi fumbled. On this occasion, it was a Foles interception – he fired a pass high off Zach Ertz's hands – that Jenkins and company had to make up for.
Despite its recent flaws, the Eagles defense has been opportunistic and has mostly delivered late when called upon. It was outplayed by the Rams and Giants on successive weeks but came up with fourth-down stops to clinch victories.
The defense started to turn the tide a little earlier on Monday night. In a span of four plays, the Eagles forced two turnovers. Of course, the offense coughed up a fumble of its own during that stretch. But Robinson's interception and Kendricks' forced fumble late in the third quarter, ultimately, led to an Eagles field goal and a 10-10 stalemate.
The Eagles' run defense had been dominant for most of the first three months, but there has been some leakage of late. The Rams' Todd Gurley gashed them for 96 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries two weeks ago. And while the Eagles kept the Giants in check, they reverted to their sloppy form in Los Angeles and surrendered 137 yards on the ground.
But they once again kept a running back under 100 yards – Marshawn Lynch finished with 95 yards on 25 totes – and now have a streak of 28 games dating back to when Matt Jones ran for 135 yards in an October loss to the Redskins last year.
Schwartz started Dannell Ellerbe at middle linebacker. Acquired last month not long after Jordan Hicks' season-ending injury, he played only one snap on defense until Monday night. But the bigger Ellerbe got the nod ahead of Najee Goode. Joe Walker, who initially replaced Hicks, was a healthy scratch.
Ellerbe wasn't the solution as the Raiders kept gobbling up yards on the ground and Goode was called upon, at least part of the time, after the Eagles allowed 69 rushing yards on the opening drive of the second half.
Lynch picked up 16 yards. Richard dashed to the left for 34 yards. But the Eagles defense held inside the red zone – when Jalen Mills broke up a third-down pass at the goal line – and Oakland settled for a 25-yard field goal and a 10-7 cushion.
Earlier in the second quarter, the Eagles were once again snake bitten by the double move and not just any one – the same slant-and-go route – a "sluggo" — that Mills and Darby had trouble with last week against the Giants. It's a route designed to take advantage of soft-playing corners. And Mills, in this instance, was playing off Cooper by about 10 yards.
The Raiders receiver faked the slant and Mills, with his eyes Carr, was playing aggressive and jumped on the pump fake. But Cooper stopped on a dime, shot upfield and was free without safety help over top. Sixty-three yards later, the Raiders had their first touchdown and the score was knotted, 7-7.
"I'm an aggressive guy. Coach knows that and I think that's what they like about me," Mills said. "At the same time, you live by the 'three,' you die by it. You bet big, you win big."
Mills, to his credit, battled back. The Raiders failed to score again before the half and after they traversed all the way down to the 6-yard line on the opening drive of the third quarter, Mills knocked a third down pass to Michael Crabtree away.
But Darby was the hero. And he'll be hailed a conqueror – at least until the playoffs where Darby and the Eagles have the opportunity to play their first two at home.
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