The fourth quarter began with the Eagles holding a 17-0 lead, and all seemed right in Philadelphia. Their inconsistent start to the season appeared behind them. The Eagles from last year were back.
They're not back. The Eagles collapsed in the fourth quarter and allowed three touchdowns in a 21-17 home loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. They left the field stunned. The locker room was shell-shocked.
It was the most devastating meltdown in recent memory and only the third time in franchise history that the Eagles have lost a game in which they led by 17 points after three quarters. It last happened in 2006.
"Good teams, championship teams like we think are, do not let that happen," tight end Zach Ertz said.
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The Eagles did, and it came three weeks after surrendering a 14-point second-half lead to Tennessee. The season has only become more disheartening, with each stride followed by a setback. They fell to 3-4, dropped their second game at home this season, and need to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in London next weekend to avoid a losing record at the midpoint of the season.
"These are games that galvanize football teams, and this is going to do that," coach Doug Pederson said. "Pressure's off of us. Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything, Pressure's off, so we can go play, have fun, and just relax."
That seemed like an odd message from Pederson. The Eagles played the underdog card last season, but that has passed its expiration date. They were supposed to "embrace the target" this season."
It was, as Pederson famously said, the "new normal." The Eagles have been favored in every game this season, and the fan base has remained despite close losses. The pressure would seem to intensify even more now, because the Eagles still consider themselves contenders despite their losing record.
"We're going to find out what we're made of now going forward," Wentz said. "I feel like we said that two weeks ago, saying it again. We're at make-or-break time, almost."
The collapse started after the Panthers converted two third downs on their way to Curtis Samuel's 14-yard touchdown run.
It appeared then like a blip for the Eagles defense. But when the Eagles punted and the Panthers drove 87 yards on seven plays, including Cam Newton's 18-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess with just more than four minutes remaining, the Eagles' lead shrunk to three points, 17-14.
The offense needed a sustained drive to preserve the victory. Instead, it went three and out.
"We just broke down, and we can't have that," Pederson said. "Those are things that our guys pride themselves on."
The Panthers regained possession with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining and a chance to take the lead. The defense forced three consecutive incompletions, setting up a fourth-and-10. The pass rush couldn't bring down Newton, who flicked a pass to former Eagles receiver Torrey Smith. Cornerback Jalen Mills had fallen and Smith ran 35 yards.
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It was Carolina's longest play of the game, and it came when the Eagles had the chance to seal a win. The crowd was silenced in an instant. And it wasn't the first time the Eagles had that problem: During the loss to Tennessee, the Eagles allowed a fourth-and-15.
"Fourth-and-15, fourth-and-10," Pederson said about a connective thread in the losses. "We've just got to go look at those two plays, and that's probably the answer. We've got to, as players and coaches, make sure we're putting our guys in position, and then secondly, we've got to execute the play. Flat out, this is a players game. Players have to make plays."
The Panthers took the lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. In one quarter, the Panthers had 226 yards and three touchdowns.
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"You know going into the fourth quarter and you're up pretty big and had control of the game," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "To kind of just starve completely as a team was just disappointing. … It's one play here, one play there that turn into big deals. Margin of error in this league is tight, especially against a good team like the Panthers. So we have to be able to finish that game."
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The only redeeming part of the Panthers' quick score was that 77 seconds remained – enough time for Wentz to play hero.
Wentz had the ball with a chance to win in the Eagles' previous two losses, too. It looked as if this one might be different when he threw deep for Alshon Jeffery on the first place and Jeffery drew a pass interference penalty, netting a 48-yard gain.
Wentz then threw an interception that was overturned, giving the Eagles renewed life. The offense was already on life support. An 8-yard rush brought them to the 14-yard line with 37 seconds remaining, but Wentz threw a third-down incompletion before he was sacked and fumbled on the decisive fourth down.
"When you're on the field at the end like that, with a shot, ball is in your hand and you don't win, it's frustrating," Wentz said.
The final drive spoiled what was otherwise a sterling performance by Wentz, who finished 30 of 37 for 310 yards, two touchdowns, and one fumble. His top targets were Ertz (nine catches, 138 yards) and Jeffery (seven catches, 88 yards, one touchdown), both of whom made plays throughout the first three quarters.
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It was an emotional game from the opening coin toss, when Panthers safety Eric Reid needed to be restrained after shouting toward Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. Reid, who is critical of the Jenkins-founded Players Coalition, was outspoken against Jenkins after the game. He also drew the ire of the Eagles offense when he hit Wentz after a Wentz handoff in the first half, prompting Ertz to charge toward Reid.
The Eagles thought they would have the last laugh after perhaps the best drive of their season – a 17-play, 94-yard effort in the third quarter that took more than nine minutes off the clock. Wentz went 7 of 8 on the drive. That seemed as if it would be enough. The Eagles found out the hard way that it was not.
Pederson might think there will now be less pressure on the Eagles. That's up for debate. What's clear is that their margin for error becomes thinner by the week.
"We still have a bunch of games," Pederson said, "and still anything's possible, anything can happen."
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