LONDON – The celebration started in the Eagles' locker room at Wembley Stadium with a level of joy different from that of any other game this season.
Music and dancing follow many wins, but they don't come with the relief that the Eagles' 24-18 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars offered on Sunday. And the celebration doesn't usually continue on an eight-hour flight back home, either.
The Eagles cleared customs and headed back to the United States with a 4-4 record at the midway point of the season, and the euphoria will stretch for two weeks because the Eagles are off for their bye week. Although a .500 record after eight games is not what they expected when the season started, it beats the prospect of a 3-5 mark that they faced when boarding the plane for London.
"It was a huge win," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "Long flight ahead of us. We're in London. I think everyone is pretty excited we're going back with a win and not a loss."
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Coach Doug Pederson said he "didn't think it was necessarily a must-win situation," but he admitted the benefit to securing this victory after "things haven't really gone our way the first half of the season." In the locker room, though, it was easy to see just how important the players thought Sunday's win was for their psyche and their hopes for this season.
" Different locker room," said left tackle Jason Peters. "We had to get a win, no question. We came straight over here and went straight to the practice field, straight through all the way, not a lot of sleep. But we came in, well-fought game, and we had to have this W, to get to 4-4, get a bye, get some of the guys back that's injured, and go from there."
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Wentz finished 21 of 30 for 286 yards with three touchdowns, one interception, and one fumble. His top receiver was Jordan Matthews, who had 93 receiving yards. The top rusher was rookie Josh Adams, who took on a bigger role and finished with 61 yards.
The offense improved on third downs, converting 7 of 12 attempts. The defense, which blitzed more than usual, had four sacks and nine quarterback hits. It also forced a turnover. Chris Long led the unit with two sacks.
It was an atypical week for the Eagles, which made the reward that much sweeter. Tight end Zach Ertz said the Eagles "had all the reason to make excuses," but instead they came through with the critical victory. And it came in an environment that the players enjoyed, too, both for its unique nature and the support they were offered.
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Although it was considered a home game for the Jaguars, who play at Wembley Stadium every season, the Eagles fans at least sounded like the majority. The official attendance was 85,870, which is a record for an NFL game in London.
It might not have been a coincidence that it was the Eagles' first regular-season game here. Cheers reverberated throughout the England national soccer team's stadium when the Eagles appeared. Boos rained down when the Jaguars took the field. And the E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles! chants made it sound as if the game were being played on Pattison Avenue.
Those fans could have been skeptical about the Eagles after the way they've played this season, and the fans might have been nervous when the Eagles nursed a 17-15 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the message from the coaching staff and players all week has been about finishing, and they avoided the collapse that plagued them one week ago.
The offense stagnated in that loss last week, but on Sunday it used a quick-strike attack to build a two-score lead. Wentz hit Matthews on a 36-yard gain and Adams rushed for 17 yards to help the Eagles get the ball into the red zone. The Wentz-Ertz connection handled the rest for a 6-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-15.
Another Jacksonville field goal cut it to a one-score game, and the Eagles almost choked it away when the referees signaled for a fumble on an Adams rush on the first offensive play. The call was overturned after review, and though the offense needed to punt, it at least didn't give the Jags good field position.
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Jacksonville converted a fourth-and-1 but the Jaguars couldn't convert a fourth-and-2, and the Eagles regained possession at the Jags' 48. They were able to run out the clock, and Wentz could end the game on his knee and exhale afterward about the fact that they "finally finished."
"If we want to go where this team anticipates us going, we can't play 45 [minutes], we can't play 50," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "You've got to play all 60."
However, the key plays in this victory happened in the first half. Wentz turned the ball over in Jaguars territory on the Eagles' first two drives, keeping the Eagles from the quick start they wanted.
His fumble was his seventh in six games and the fifth he has lost. Wentz took responsibility and admitted he must "look in the mirror and say, 'How can I protect the ball a little bit better?' "
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The Eagles trailed, 6-3, late in the third quarter and needed a spark. It came when safety Avonte Maddox forced a fumble while the Jaguars drove into Eagles territory. Maddox timed his hit on Keelan Cole, jarring the ball loose after Cole made the catch. Malcolm Jenkins scooped up the ball and returned it to Jacksonville's 44-yard line in the waning minutes of the first half.
"That's one of the things I think that has been missing the first half of the season, quite frankly: turnovers, then short fields for the offense," Pederson said. "I told the team even after the game, that's a positive. We can do that. We need more of that second half."
Wentz didn't spoil the opportunity. He scrambled for a 13-yard gain on third-and-11 to extend the drive, and then he found Dallas Goedert across the field for a 32-yard touchdown. Goedert broke a tackle to reach the end zone, and the Eagles took a 10-6 lead into halftime.
The Eagles never relinquished the lead, adding to the score in the third quarter when Wendell Smallwood ran a screen pass for a 36-yard touchdown.
It was far from a flawless game, and the Jaguars missed on opportunities that could have devastated the Eagles. But what mattered was the final score, and the Eagles will return from the bye with three of four games at home against NFC East opponents. The division remains their clearest path to the playoffs, and it's within their reach for the second half of the season.
That's why they expected a joyous flight back home. If the Wembley Stadium crowd and London streets and pubs were any indication, it won't be the only flight from London to Philadelphia with celebrations.
"Fun," Hicks said of his upcoming flight. "A lot of fun."
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