What we learned about the Eagles en route to 13-3: It was the best of times, and then it wasn't
No one expected Carson Wentz to lift the Eagles to the top of the NFC - or for him to go down with a season-ending injury with the playoffs in sight.
Nobody saw a 13-3 Eagles regular season and No. 1 NFC playoff seeding about to unfold back when we began this journey, Sept. 10 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. With a little time to catch our breath before the Eagles' playoff quest begins, it might be instructive to look at how we got here, and what we learned along the way.
Eagles 30, Redskins 17: Lotsa stuff here that gave us hints of what was to come. Halapoulivaati Vaitai played more than a half for 35-year-old Jason Peters, who suffered a groin tweak; Peters, the Eagles' nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle, would suffer a season-ending knee injury in the rematch with the Redskins, Oct. 23 at the Linc. Vaitai would play the rest of the season in his spot. Top corner Ronald Darby went down with an ankle injury that would sideline him until Nov. 19.
But more illuminating was what Carson Wentz did in the opener. The Eagles' second-year QB was 26-for-39 for 307 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Wentz's first TD pass of the season was a 58-yarder to Nelson Agholor, on third and 12, thrown after he shucked two pass rushers who seemed to have him sacked. This was what Wentz had in store for us in 2017, and it was magnificent.
Chiefs 27, Eagles 20: This game was an outlier. Its main significance was that it taught Doug Pederson he couldn't ignore the run game (only 13 carries, 52 yards for the running backs), no matter how enticing the passing matchups looked. Jake Elliott debuted as the kicker in the wake of a hip-flexor tear suffered by Caleb Sturgis in the opener.
Eagles 27, Giants 24: This was the week Eagles fans discovered what they had in Elliott. In his second game as an Eagle, Elliott hit a franchise-record 61-yard game-winning field goal on the final play. Also, the running game emerged, with 193 yards on 39 carries; it remained a solid component of a prolific offense the rest of the year. But Darren Sproles was lost for the season with knee and arm injuries, something that might ultimately have led to the trade for Jay Ajayi.
Eagles 26, Chargers 24: LeGarrette Blount blasted 136 yards on 16 carries, Elliott hit all four field goal attempts, all from 40 yards or more. Pass defense had some issues (Philip Rivers threw for 347 yards and two TDs), but Wentz and the offense controlled the ball for the final six minutes and 44 seconds, as Eagles fans took over the StubHub Center.
Most important, Eagles fans began to think, with the team 3-1, that maybe expectations for a middling season of growth were going to be exceeded.
Eagles 34, Cardinals 7: The first of what would be five blowout victories in the soft underbelly of the schedule, as the Eagles began to truly assert themselves as NFC contenders. Wentz's first four-touchdown-pass day. Huge Wentz day on third down — 11-for-12 for 225 yards, 3 TDs — the sort of thing that would become his signature as the season rolled along. Agholor's four catches for 93 yards and a TD provided more reassurance that he was in the midst of a breakout season.
Eagles 28, Panthers 23: This was the moment when nearly everyone began to believe, a solid road victory against a playoff-worthy opponent, on just four days rest, for a team that played four of its first six games on the road. Carolina's running backs finished with 10 carries for one net yard, the Eagles' defense showing the form that would allow it to lead the league against the run.
Eagles 34, Redskins 24: A solid but costly victory, with both left tackle Jason Peters (knee) and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles') going down for the season. Wentz's 9-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement, and his seemingly impossible escape from pass rush pressure for a 17-yard gain, were season-defining plays.
Eagles 33, 49ers 10: The defense terrorized 49ers rookie QB C.J. Beathard; Jalen Mills' pick-six really got the rout rolling. Wentz took over the NFL lead in touchdown passes, which he would retain until two weeks after he was injured.
Eagles 51, Broncos 23: Lots of people anticipated an Eagles win that would run their record to 8-1. Nobody anticipated 197 Eagles rushing yards against a defense that entered the game No. 2 in the NFL against the rush. This was the Eagles debut for running back Jay Ajayi, acquired earlier in the week at the trade deadline for a fourth-round draft pick. Ajayi gained 77 yards on eight carries, including a 46-yard touchdown gallop.
Eagles 37, Cowboys 9: The Eagles actually trailed at the half before unleashing a 30-point second-half blizzard. Defense was all over Dak Prescott (four sacks, three interceptions) and four Eagles running backs rushed for 202 yards. The Birds established that they were the class of the NFC East, if any doubters remained.
Eagles 31, Bears 3: This blowout made the Eagles 10-1, tying their best start all-time. They emerged leading the NFL in scoring. The Bears gained 140 total yards, the lowest total by an Eagles opponent since 1996. Chicago, fifth in rushing coming in, gained six yards on the ground on 14 carries. Jordan Howard, the league's third-leading rusher, managed 6 yards on 7 carries. Chicago did not manage a first down in the first half, and it never entered the red zone.
Seahawks 24, Eagles 10: Reality intruded, a week before it really bit hard. The Eagles' defense, after giving up one touchdown in the month of November, started December by giving up three, all on Russell Wilson passes. The offense somehow managed to gain 425 yards (348 passing) and score just 10 points. This was the game where Wentz fumbled reaching the ball into the end zone.
Eagles 43, Rams 35: On one lovely, clear Los Angeles afternoon, at the end of an upbeat week of practice in Anaheim, the Eagles managed to show they could win on the road against a top NFC contender, while losing Wentz for the season with a torn ACL. So Eagles fans could go to bed knowing they had a team that certainly COULD have made the Super Bowl, but almost certainly WOULDN'T after losing its franchise quarterback. And people wonder why we're bitter. Wentz threw his franchise record-setting 33rd touchdown pass of the season a few snaps after suffering the knee injury.
Eagles 34, Giants 29: Maybe there was consolation in seeing the Eagles' defense prove it might not be up to winning the Lombardi Trophy, even if Wentz hadn't gone down. Or maybe not. Some fans wanted to take Nick Foles' four touchdown passes at face value, and go ahead with the purchase of Super Bowl tickets. Others sensed they had been here before.
Eagles 19, Raiders 10: Foles' shaky 19-for-38, 163-yard passing performance was not the Christmas present fans were hoping for. The Eagles trailed in the third quarter before a succession of Raiders turnovers primed the pump just enough to provide victory and homefield advantage throughout the postseason.
Cowboys 6, Eagles 0: Despair over Foles deepened, as he looked erratic and confused in an unproductive quarter of work in a meaningless game, a quarter coaches had hoped would send Foles and the offense into the postseason in confidence and harmony. Instead, he seemed to unravel more each series. The defense played well, though, despite resting key starters, with Dallas keeping its offensive starters in the whole way. Rookie corner Sidney Jones and quarterback Nate Sudfeld saw their first NFL action.
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