More than three-quarters of the way through a comforting bedtime story that would put to rest the bad dreams that have partially haunted the start of the season for the Eagles, someone erased the final pages Sunday afternoon and scribbled a nightmare of an ending.
Despite holding a 17-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the Eagles lost, 21-17, to the Carolina Panthers and now head into a long road trip to London next week with a 3-4 record and more questions than they have faced this year.
"Championship teams, like we think we are, do not let these things happen," tight end Zach Ertz said. "We're letting games slip we have no business losing."
This game was supposed to be a happy homecoming for the Eagles after getting back on track in their previous game on the road against the Giants. A nice win over the Panthers, whose quarterback, Cam Newton, has always struggled against the Eagles – and a team that hadn't won a road game since last November – would be just the prescription for their perceived Super Bowl hangover.
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Instead, the collapse intensified the concern over the issues that have been biting at their heels, and particularly since a home loss to Minnesota two weeks ago. If Lincoln Financial Field isn't the antidote, and if a 30-for-37, 310-yard, two-touchdown day for Carson Wentz isn't enough to lift them, then what will save the season?
It's possible nothing but time will heal them, and that's a direct correlation to their physical condition. Both of their offensive tackles are gimpy, their defensive line is thin in the middle, their secondary is mix-and-match every week, and the laundry list of missing players is daunting. They all they got, but they might not be all they need.
"These are games that galvanize football teams, and this is going to do that," head coach Doug Pederson said. "This is going to bring us even closer together. [I] basically told them pressure's off of us. Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything."
That us-versus-world stuff plays a lot better when your team is going 13-3, though, even if it doesn't make as much sense. If people don't believe in the Eagles right now, there's some reason for that. Whether the doubt galvanizes the team or has no effect at all is a reasonable debate.
In the end on Sunday, as the shadows from the west stands fell across the field, it ended with Wentz trying to engineer one desperate comeback to salvage the win. Getting the ball with just over a minute left, hope was kept alive twice – once when Alshon Jeffrey drew a pass interference penalty deep in Carolina territory, and once when an apparent interception was overruled on review.
But Wentz was overwhelmed as he dropped back to pass on fourth down. He was sacked, fumbled the ball, and Carolina fell on it to extinguish the last hope. The Panthers hugged and danced off the field, taking with them a win no one could have predicted at the end of the third quarter.
The difference between being 3-4 with the possibility of falling to 3-5 at the bye, and pushing above .500 on Sunday with the chance to go 5-3 at the bye, is enormous, of course. What it means in a larger sense to lose this game is that if the Eagles aren't good enough to hold onto that 17-0 lead at home, then they just aren't good enough.
"The situation can cause you to be a little conservative, because you're playing the clock, you're playing [with] the lead," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "But I'm not going to make it more than it was. We dominated three quarters and had one bad one. So, you look at what you did well and what you didn't do well and you go fix it. That's all you can do at this point."
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Wentz looked capable of pulling them through most of the game. He was accurate on a blustery day in which accuracy can't be taken for granted. He certainly looked more settled than Newton, who missed receivers or found himself harassed into poor decisions. Neither quarterback had much of a running game to help.
What might have finally killed the Eagles in the end was that despite dominating the first half, they held only a 10-0 lead at halftime. They did add another score late in the third quarter, but after that the defense couldn't contain Newton, who got loose on runs and bought time roaming around the pocket. Three Carolina touchdowns and two Eagles punts later, what didn't seem possible was written in large numbers on the scoreboard and Wentz couldn't take the Eagles all the way home again.
"Carson's playing out of his mind," Ertz said. "I always say he shouldn't have to feel he has to carry this football team, but the reality is [that] he kind of is."
The lasting comparison for Sunday's game and the season as a whole is that while Carson Wentz is great, he isn't great enough to win by himself. That was the case against Carolina, but it's too early to write the same ending for the season. The final chapters could work out a lot better. They can't work out much worse.