Entering Sunday’s game vs. Giants, the Eagles know ‘it’s now or never’ to salvage season
Can the Eagles turn the season around? "It's now or never," offensive tackle Lane Johnson says.
The three-game stretch of NFC East games beginning Thanksgiving weekend stood out when the Eagles' schedule was released in April, although at the time it appeared to be an opportunity to gain distance in a division race in which the Eagles were the clear favorites.
It has since become the Eagles' last chance to save a season of underachievement.
"It's now or never," offensive tackle Lane Johnson said.
The Eagles are 4-6 entering Sunday's game against the New York Giants, which will be followed by a Monday Night Football matchup with Washington and a visit to Dallas.
For the Eagles to reach the postseason, the path must go through the division. Washington and Dallas are tied atop the standings at 6-5, and the Eagles have four division games remaining. So the Eagles' chance of becoming the first back-to-back NFC East champions since 2004 remains viable. But the injury-ravaged, defending Super Bowl champions have yet to win back-to-back games.
They're no longer the division favorites. And they're running out of time.
"We have six games left, and our destiny is in our hands," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "We've got three NFC East opponents in our next three games, so it's on us if we want to turn this thing around."
Flipping the script?
The players are aware of their plight. To hear coach Doug Pederson's public comments, though, there is no reason to panic. He comes off as more agitated about questions regarding his medical staff than losing by 41 points.
Pederson doesn't want to make it a public concern. He wouldn't divulge whether his tone or message is different behind the scenes, saying that his discussions "are between me and the team." (Of course, this approach has endeared him to players in the past.)
So how does Pederson feel about being 4-6 through 10 games?
"You say 4-6, and that's what we are," Pederson said. "We're a play or two or three away from flipping the script. So, we're close."
The Eagles were dozens of plays from flipping the script in a 48-7 loss to New Orleans last Sunday, although this has been Pederson's message throughout the season. Never mind that they're also two plays away from being 2-8. There's no playoff bracket for what a team's record could have been. All that matters is the record, and the Eagles are 4-6. No degree of spin will change that.
"We've been playing like we're 4-6," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "Our record says what we are. We have to do something about it. The biggest thing is we have a couple division games in front of us that we're excited about."
Captains Malcolm Jenkins and Jason Kelce have offered strong, revealing comments about missing intangibles that were major parts of last season's success.
Jenkins was bothered by his team's lack of "fight" in the loss to the Saints.
"You're either going to get blown out swinging or you're going to get blown out laying down," Jenkins said. "And I think you had a little bit of both."
One week earlier, Kelce suggested the Eagles lack the cohesion and accountability from one year ago. He made clear that he didn't mean that there was a problem with the team's effort, but that the team hadn't demonstrated the same makeup as last year's group and that the Eagles lost respected veterans.
"I just think there was a greater level of accountability from a cohesive standpoint of everybody working together," Kelce said.
Pederson said he speaks often to the team about "ownership," and he believes the comments from the leaders were directed at themselves as much as anybody. Pederson thought that Jenkins' comment sends a message and that everyone is held to a higher standard. But the coach also tried to dispel the perception that the comments reveal a problem with a 4-6 team.
"This is one of the things I love about this football team: There isn't a ton of finger-pointing," Pederson said. "You might take Malcolm's comments as finger-pointing or Kelce's. It's not. They're talking about themselves, too, right. They hold themselves accountable. I hold myself accountable, and then collectively, we can do that as a group."
Slow starts, few forced turnovers
There are many reasons the Eagles are in this situation; it's not simply one area that requires fixing for Sunday. The offense's scoring is down 8.1 points from last season. The defense has seen a decline in what had been the NFL's top-ranked rush defense and has forgotten how to force turnovers. And the injury list continues to grow, especially in the decimated secondary.
On offense, the biggest problem has been the slow starts to games. The Eagles have a league-low 21 first-quarter points, forcing them to play from behind often. Their best game came when they first played the Giants and they jumped to a 14-3 first-quarter lead. It was the only game this season in which they led entering the second quarter.
The Chiefs-Rams shootout Monday night, with 105 combined points, was the type of game the Eagles could play last season. (Remember the Super Bowl?) Not this year, when the Eagles have needed to keep opponents to 14.75 points just to win four games.
"Everybody compares us to last year," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "Every season is new. Every team is different. Right now, we all know that we have to do better. If the season is going to turn around, then we got to get these things fixed."
The defense, which has lost two fourth-quarter leads, has only seven takeaways. Only two NFL teams have fewer. And opponents aren't so hesitant to run the ball, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
The Eagles allowed 100-yard rushers the last two games, so it might not be the best time to see Giants rookie Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 130 yards against the Eagles in their first meeting.
And when the Giants pass, Eli Manning will attack a secondary that is expected to be without all five cornerbacks the Eagles had on their opening-day roster, plus a starting safety.
The cornerbacks Sunday will likely be Chandon Sullivan, De'Vante Bausby, and Cre'von LeBlanc. The safeties, other than Malcolm Jenkins, will be Corey Graham, Tre Sullivan, and Deiondre' Hall.
The Eagles will play without seven of the 11 defensive starters from the first Giants game.
"Those are challenging situations, but … they don't start you with extra points in the beginning of the game and you don't get any gold stars for performing with fill-in players or backup players, just like nobody grades you on a curve if you stay 100 percent healthy," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
The Eagles are missing two opening-day starters on offense, too. Still, they have many players who helped the Eagles to the Super Bowl last season. They have a franchise quarterback who, despite playing the worst game of his career last weekend, had his best game of the season against the Giants in October.
And the Eagles will have defensive tackle Tim Jernigan in the lineup for the first time this season, after adding receiver Golden Tate at the trade deadline.
"We have all the ingredients to the cake," Johnson said. "We've just got to put the heat on it to make it rise. We've got the heat on us — I know that."
Ripe for the taking
The Eagles' reason for optimism is that the NFC East allows them to maintain hope they can salvage the season. It's the only division in the NFL without a seven-win team. If the Eagles beat the Giants, they'll be one game behind Washington and Dallas with games against both during the next two weeks.
There are scenarios in which the Eagles would still be alive with a loss Sunday, but the surest way to remain in contention is to enter December with a 5-6 record.
"For us to even have success — we want to talk about the division — if we don't find guys who are ready to fight for it, it's all for naught," Jenkins said. "… This is who we're going to win with. If we can't handle it right now, there's not going to be a switch we can turn on later to all the sudden be the team everybody expects us to be."
After Sunday, the Eagles' five remaining games will come against teams with winning records. The remaining out-of-division opponents are the Los Angeles Rams (10-1) and Houston Texans (7-3). The Eagles don't necessarily need to win both. They cannot afford to lose a division game.
Wentz said there's urgency every week, but the Eagles are "very aware of where we're at and where this division is."
Of course, the Eagles' biggest impediment is not the path in front of them but rather their own team. They haven't proven to be good enough this season to win back-to-back games, much less three consecutive division games. There's time to fix it, but that must start Sunday.
"We've talked enough this season," Johnson said. "We've got three division games in a row. It's really going to go down to what we do."