Carson Wentz was the last player introduced, emerging through billows of smoke with an ovation nine months in the making. But when the Eagles' 20-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts was determined on Sunday, Wentz remained in a similar position to Week 1. He watched from the sideline while the defense proved clutch with another game-saving stop near the end zone.
Wentz's return to the lineup received top billing on Sunday. The defense made sure the Philadelphia crowd was rewarded for sitting through a steady rain to see the Eagles advance to 2-1.
"Good football teams find ways to win," Pederson said. "In tight, close ballgames, we've been able to figure it out and win. That's a tribute to the guys in the locker room."
They found a way because the defense kept the Colts out of the end zone on four of five red zone trips. The most memorable came when the Colts were 4 yards from the end zone on fourth down with 1 minute, 19 seconds remaining in the game. It was comparable to the Eagles' Week 1 win, except this time, the opposing quarterback didn't even get a chance to attempt the pass. Derek Barnett beat the left tackle around the edge and swiped at Andrew Luck's feet. Luck stumbled before falling to the ground. He slammed the turf in frustration.
"I think we're more comfortable in the red zone than anywhere else, to be honest," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We know if we keep teams out of the end zone, really, what happens between the 10-yard lines is irrelevant. Once we get down there tight, if we can hold them to three [points], I feel we can outscore them."
Wentz did not look like an MVP candidate on Sunday, but he played well enough for the Eagles to win. He finished 25 of 37 for 255 yards with one touchdown, one interception and one fumble. He also rushed for 10 yards. It was a good first step.
Wentz admitted that "emotions were running high from the moment I woke up this morning." He listened to worship music before the game, fired his first pass too hard to Nelson Agholor, and then settled in and played with the same style of last season. He showed mobility in the pocket. He dove for a first down. Yes, there were dump-off passes and even a slide, but Wentz didn't return from the injury a different quarterback. The only difference was the brace on his left knee and the amount of key skill-position players on the injury list.
"I've felt good for awhile," Wentz said. "It was just good to finally get out there."
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Wentz and the offense took the field down 16-13 in the first minute of the fourth quarter. They had not scored a touchdown since the game's opening drive, and explosive plays were hard to find. So Wentz led the Eagles on a 17-play, 75-yard drive that sapped more than 11 minutes off the clock. The Eagles were aided by penalties, included a pair of defensive holdings — on fourth down that bailed the Eagles out, and on a second-and-26 that gave the Eagles a fresh set of downs. But Wentz also found Agholor for two key third-down conversions. Wendell Smallwood, who took on a bigger role Sunday with the absences of Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles, rushed for a 4-yard touchdown to put the Eagles ahead. Smallwood and Corey Clement both rushed for 56 yards on Sunday; the Eagles totaled 152 rushing yards.
The defense, for all its success, appeared determined to make it another dramatic finish. A pass interference by Jalen Mills — his second of the game — helped bring the Colts into Eagles territory. Luck completed two passes to get the ball into the red zone. Because of the Eagles touchdown, the Colts needed seven points and not three. The Colts brought the ball all the way to the Eagles' 4-yard line, but the Eagles stopped the Colts on third down to set up the decisive fourth down. That's when Barnett came around for the sack.
"This kid just keeps getting better and better," Pederson said of Barnett. "Just seems like, somewhere in the game, 96 is going to show up and make a play."
The Colts had another chance in the final minute, but there was too much ground to cover to put pressure on the Eagles. A last-second Hail Mary, delivered by backup Jacoby Brissett, fell incomplete.
It did not appear like it was going to be such a close game in the first quarter. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Wentz used a no-huddle offense with only one wide receiver to lead a 12-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. All seven of his passes, of which two were incomplete, were intended for tight ends. Dallas Goedert caught a 13-yard touchdown for the first score of his career. He tied with Ertz for a team-high 73 receiving yards.
"That's where good coaching comes into play, getting our best guys out there," said Wentz, acknowledging the reality of playing without key offensive players such as Alshon Jeffery, Mike Wallace, Ajayi, and Sproles.
The offense sputtered thereafter, including two turnovers by Wentz inside the Eagles red zone. The defense held the Colts to field goals both times. If the Colts made the Eagles pay with touchdowns, the game would have been out of reach.
"It gives us a lot of energy and excitement on the offensive side to know that if we just put one together, the defense is going to get a hold," Wentz said. "That's what they did."
There's much room for the Eagles improve despite the win. They were minus-2 in turnovers. They committed 10 penalties. The offense needs more big plays. But there won't be the same agita in Philadelphia on Monday morning that there was last week.
They have Wentz back. More key players are on the way – Alshon Jeffery could be next. After the game, Jenkins' message to his teammates was that they're "back in the winner's circle" heading into next week's game in Tennessee.
"We ended up making one more play than they did," Jenkins said. "Often times, that's the difference in this league."
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