On a cold, windy Christmas night, the Eagles outlasted the Raiders, 19-10, and clinched the NFC No. 1 seed mostly behind the efforts of their defense and special teams. Win, lose or draw – and for a moment there, a tie seemed possible – here's what we learned:
The NFC playoffs are going through Philadelphia – or at least that's the plan. Before I pick through the game, and some realistic reasons for concern heading into the postseason, the Eagles' achievements this season deserve acknowledgement. No matter what happens in a few weeks, Doug Pederson and company have had a remarkable year. NFC East title? Check. First-round bye? Check. Home field throughout the NFC playoffs? Check. Pederson declined to say which way he was leaning regarding playing/resting his starters in an otherwise meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, but if the 13-2 Eagles want one more feather in their cap, 14 regular-season wins would set a franchise mark. (The Eagles, by the way, need 18 points this Sunday to eclipse the team mark for points in a season, 474, set three years ago). The No. 1 seed, of course, is huge. The Eagles won't have to board a plane until, theoretically, the Super Bowl. Playing at Lincoln Financial Field, obviously, has its advantages. The Eagles are 7-0 at home this season, have won nine straight in Philly, and are 13-2 in their last 15 games at the Linc. Will that matter if Nick Foles and the offense play as they did Monday night or if the defense looks as it did last week at the Giants? Probably not. But how many times do players get to say they're the conference No. 1 seed – assuming you're not a Patriot – over their careers? "It was the only time in my life I've ever clinched the NFC – you'd think you'd be pretty happy," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "But obviously, the performance the offense put together is frustrating to say the least." But since Kelce addressed the elephant …
The Eagles won't win anything in the postseason if they keep playing this way. Well, yeah. Thirteen points by the offense won't likely cut it. The defense showed up, especially in the second half, but that didn't erase its effort from the previous three weeks. I don't think you can feel confident about either unit – and special teams hasn't been a slam dunk over the last month-plus – but a limp offense is the immediate concern. The Eagles managed just two drives of more than 26 yards. They were a putrid 1 for 14 on third down. They gained just 37 total yards after the break. Foles looked as if he couldn't complete a pass beyond 10 yards. The receivers couldn't get separation on the outside. The weather didn't exactly make for ideal scoring conditions, but guess what, it's likely to be as cold or windy in a few weeks. But since I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, you could also make the case that if the offense plays as it did in North Jersey – albeit against a woeful Giants defense – and if the defense plays as it did against Oakland – albeit against a sad offense – the Eagles will have a fighting chance against whomever they play. Each of the teams they could face in the divisional round isn't without its blemishes – the Rams, Saints, Panthers, Falcons or Seahawks – and the Any Given Sunday adage applies in the postseason, as well. But the contracted second season tends to spit out the most flawed squads, and the lack of a quality quarterback could be the Eagles' fatal flaw. Which brings us to …
Nick Foles is a backup for good reason. I wrote this two weeks ago in my Film breakdown of Foles heading into his first start: Everything he does is a tick slower than Carson
Wentz — his recognition, his awareness, his release, his arm strength and, of course, his movements. The same goes for the offense. The unit looked as if it was moving at 20 frames per second. Foles completed only 19 of 38 passes for 163 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per attempt. He tossed a touchdown pass on a screen to Jay Ajayi, but he also threw an interception and was sacked twice. "I didn't play good enough," Foles said. "I have to play cleaner and, obviously, play better. Third down is a big thing with a quarterback; pin-point accuracy, making good decisions." Foles missed open receivers. His decision-making before halftime on third down – he could have thrown to an open Corey Clement or run for the marker with a timeout left – was not good. Foles ended up throwing the ball away, and Jake Elliott missed a 33-yard field goal. The weather wasn't conducive to passing downfield. Raiders QB Derek Carr was just as bad, if not worse. But Foles clearly took a step back into reality after his four-touchdown outing against the Giants. "Different circumstances, different defense," Pederson said Monday when asked to assess Foles. "We'll just evaluate the film tomorrow and make the corrections. But, he's played a ton of football. He'll be hard on himself. He'll be critical. He'll fix it and be ready to go."
The defense is still capable of carrying the offense. Writing on deadline can make you nauseous. I won't bore you with many details, but after the Raiders' opening drive of the second half, when they ran the ball down the neck of the Eagles, I decided I'd tackle the defense for my newspaper column. The unit hadn't performed well up until that point, but it had allowed only 10 points and I figured the outcome would ultimately rest on its shoulders. I started out writing a "defense was still sleepwalking" story. Jalen Mills got beat on another double move in the first half, and now the Eagles couldn't contain the run. But just like that, the tide turned. On the Raiders' final nine possessions, they went punt, interception, fumble, punt, missed field goal, fumble, punt, interception, and fumble. The Raiders have either the most inept offense of all time – it's not good, by any stretch — or Jim Schwartz's unit deserved some credit for forcing five turnovers and holding Oakland to just 45 yards on its last nine drives. I asked safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had a big forced fumble late in the game, if the defense felt as if it needed one dominant outing after three subpar efforts. "No, we didn't need anything," Jenkins said. "At the end of the day, we wanted to just win the game that we're in and clinch home-field advantage." Schwartz dug deep into his bag of schemes to confound the Raiders – his third-down zero blitz on one late series was particularly effective. But can he get 60 dominant minutes out of his group to offset any possible offensive issues in the playoffs? The jury is still out.
The offense might need another week of fine-tuning. Pederson, during his Monday news conference, appeared to be leaning toward playing Foles and most of his starters against the Cowboys. "I got to get him as many reps as I can," he said. If he was being more specific, Pederson would have qualified his comment and said that he needed to get Foles as many reps with his receivers as possible. Rhythm or a lack thereof has been an issue with the quarterback and targets such as Alshon Jeffery (more on that later). Timing is an important part of running an efficient offense, and with Foles' speed being slower than Wentz's, there needs to be more live snaps. I'd imagine Pederson rests starters with lingering injuries or recent ones – Stefen Wisniewski, Brandon Graham, maybe Jalen Mills – but some are going to have to play part, if not all, of Sunday's game.
The cornerbacks will live and die by the sword. Mills gambled, and he lost. The Eagles cornerback bit on another double-move "sluggo" route – slant and go – and got burned. Carr and Amari Cooper took advantage of Mills' aggressiveness as he was playing off the receiver, and went over the top for a 63-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Aside from a 23-yard screen, it was the Raiders' lone pass play of more than 20 yards. It looked bad, and considering that Mills and Ronald Darby got toasted by a few double moves last week, it was disconcerting. But the Eagles corners clamped down from that point onward. Darby had a great game. Aside from an illegal-contact penalty on third down, I can't recall any other down moments. I wrote about his game, in particular, for my column. A week ago in this space, I wrote that maybe the Eagles should consider sitting him for a period so he can regain his confidence. In retrospect, that was an ill-advised suggestion. Darby has been around long enough and has had enough sustained success in the NFL to work his way out of his problems. And he's done that, at least for one week.
Jake Elliott should kick only 40-plus field goals. I say that partly in jest, but teams have carried two kickers before. I don't think the Eagles would burn a roster spot on Caleb Sturgis, but Elliott's inconsistency on short kicks could warrant some discussion. Elliott has been more accurate from beyond 40 yards – 17 for 19 (89.5 percent) – than he has from less than 40 – 9 for 12 (75 percent) – this season. He's also missed three extra points. I can't explain the disparity. I doubt he could, either. There might not be a large enough sample. But the kid has stones. You can't go back to Sturgis. Elliott nailed another game winner Monday – this time from 48 yards and in windy conditions. Before the half, he faded a 33-yard attempt wide right on the same end of the field. "Honestly, at halftime, I had a really, really good feeling it was going to come down to one," Elliott said of his game-winner. "And luckily it did."
The wide receivers aren't the same without Carson Wentz. Since Wentz went down in the Rams game, Jeffery has five catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. He's been targeted 14 times over a span of two games and a quarter. His lack of chemistry with Foles wasn't glaring during the Rams and Giants games, but it was noticeable enough that Jeffery's Monday night donut (zero catches) shouldn't have come as a surprise. He wasn't targeted once in the first half, and in the second, he saw the ball only twice and dropped a wobbler. Nelson Agholor (4 catches for 35 yards) and Torrey Smith (1 catch for 5 yards) appeared to also have trouble gelling with Foles. Zach Ertz was Foles' favorite target – he caught 9 passes for 81 yards – but most of those throws were first-read, play-action passes. There's nothing wrong with those kinds of plays, but anytime Foles was asked to drop back and look downfield, it was a scary proposition. I'm not going to pin all the blame on Foles. Jeffery and Smith need to do a better job on the outside. If they can't get separation, they still must pull in contested passes. Jeffery has been good but not great this year. He has 56 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns. If I had been told before the season that Agholor's numbers would be just as good – 59 catches for 757 yards and eight touchdowns — I would have been shocked.
Jay Ajayi will be the lead running back in the playoffs. For the last four games, Ajayi has gotten the most touches. He rushed 14 times for 52 yards and caught two passes for 21 yards and a touchdown. LeGarrette Blount ran five times for 12 yards and caught one pass for three yards. And Corey Clement had two carries for 14 yards and one catch for six yards. As far as snap distribution, Ajayi led the way with 28 out of 68 (41 percent), Clement was next at 27 (40 pct.), followed by Blount at 12 (18 pct.) and then Kenjon Barner with 2 (3 pct.). Blount has been struggling to get going during the last month. Is it the fewer tries? Is he wearing down in December? Have defenses picked up on tendencies? I argued that Ajayi probably needed an increase in touches, but not at the expense of Blount and the Eagles' backfield diversity. The Eagles are going to need a strong run game in the playoffs. Ajayi has run well, particularly on outside plays. But if I'm Pederson, I wouldn't get away from what made the Eagles so dynamic on the ground from October to December.
And some leftovers: Dannell Ellerbe got the nod at middle linebacker, at least to start, but he appeared to have some struggles. Najee Goode was called upon to help in the second half and the Eagles' run defense improved. Was there some correlation? Joe Walker was a healthy scratch. … Cornerback Rasul Douglas was back in the lineup after being inactive last week. I don't recall seeing him out there, but he played four snaps on defense. Jaylen Watkins played at cornerback, as well. Did giving Mills and Darby, who played every snap last week, a break here and there help their play against the Raiders? Maybe. … Jeffery wasn't the only Eagles player with a drop. Agholor and Clement had two passes slip through their hands.