Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Many people looked at the Eagles' closer-than-it-should-have-been 34-29 win over the 2-11 Giants on Sunday and saw an ugly, disconcerting performance that set off alarm bells just three weeks before the playoffs start.
Not Doug Pederson.
When the Eagles coach looked at the game, he saw an admittedly flawed, but character-building performance that his team needed to experience as it prepares for the postseason.
"We've all been in situations where sometimes, you know you're probably going to win the football game, but at the same time, you either look past it or whatever,'' Pederson said. "I remember when I was coaching high school ball, and kind of going through the week [before a game] thinking, we got this. Then [we play and] you're in a dogfight. The beauty of it Sunday was we were in a dogfight, and we needed to be in a dogfight. We were in one and we figured out how to win the game.''
If the Eagles' defense doesn't start playing better, particularly in the early portion of games, dogfights will become the norm.
They have built their 12-2 record this season primarily on fast starts that forced teams to play catch-up and alter their offensive game plans. Case in point: Opponents called run plays 32 percent of the time, the lowest such figure in the NFL.
In the Birds' first 11 games, they outscored their opponents by 78-18 in the first quarter and 256-108 in the first three quarters. Dogfights were few and far between. They trailed after one quarter just once (3-0 to the Redskins in Week 7) and trailed going into the fourth quarter only once (13-10 to the Chiefs in Week 2).
But in the last three games, the Eagles gave up a league-high 30 points in the first quarter, including 24 on their opponents' first two possessions. They trailed both Seattle (0-10) and the Giants (7-13) after the first 15 minutes.
In their first 11 games, they held opponents to 3.5 yards per play and 15 points — five field goals — on their first two possessions. In the last three games, they allowed 5.5 yards per play and the aforementioned 24 points (three touchdowns and a field goal).
The Giants, who came into Sunday's game ranked 31st in scoring and 29th in total offense, opened the game with three straight touchdowns. They drove 76, 75 and 75 yards for scores, averaging 8.7 yards per play.
"It took us three series of getting punched in the mouth before we responded and started playing more consistently,'' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "That's something we can't allow to happen. We have to come out and say, 'Hey, we're on top.' The thing that has hurt us, particularly in this last game, were penalties and third down. The first three series of the game, I think we started 0-for-6 on third down. You talk about a good formula for giving up points, there's one right there.
Schwartz continued: "When we're playing our best, we don't give teams a second chance. I've said that for a few weeks in a row now, and I'm getting a little tired of saying it. But we have to get back to that. We have to get back to playing clean football and not giving people stuff for free.''
On the Giants' first touchdown drive, a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Jalen Mills negated a Vinny Curry sack of Eli Manning on third-and-7.
On their second scoring drive, the Eagles gave up a 28-yard completion to tight end Evan Engram on third-and-9. On their third touchdown drive, a poor pursuit angle by safety Rodney McLeod on a crossing route by wide receiver Sterling Shepard led to a 67-yard scoring catch and run.
It was a two-point game until Jake Elliott's 20-yard field goal with 3:56 left. Even then, the Giants managed to drive down to the Philadelphia 6-yard line before a fourth-down incompletion to Engram finally made it safe to breathe.
"The tougher the battles, the more you learn about yourself,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "They do wear you out. But you learn your weaknesses and your strengths.
"You gain confidence. That belief and that confidence and the things that you learn in those situations better suits you for what playoff football is like.
"Because there's going to be a situation [in the playoffs] where you're going to need to make a [big] play, whether it's a blocked kick or interception or first down on a tough run. Or you're going to need to be ready for a situation you haven't seen all year, except for maybe that one tight game that you had. Bottom line, I think we're a better team for it.''
We'll see. Before the Seattle game earlier this month, Pederson said it would be a "great opportunity'' if his team had to come back from a seven- or 10- or 14-point deficit. "It would be a great test for us,'' he said then.
That happened against the Seahawks, but the Eagles weren't able to make up the difference. It happened against the Giants — they were down, 20-7, early in the second quarter — and they managed to come back and hang on. But the Eagles' potential playoff opponents will be much better than the 2-12 Giants.
"We're going to be in that [kind of] game,'' Pederson said. "Because now you're talking about six teams that can win and know how to win. They're there for a reason. Everybody's good.''
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