NASHVILLE – The Eagles watched the Tennessee Titans rush onto the field to celebrate a game-winning touchdown in the Eagles' 26-23 loss on Sunday, a feeling similar to the one the Eagles' opponents had felt so often during the last 13 months. And what rankled the Eagles the most was that it never should have happened.
The Eagles had made the Titans face three fourth downs in overtime, and they allowed the chains to move each time. Carson Wentz brought the Eagles into the red zone at the end of regulation and in overtime needing a touchdown to win, yet they settled for field goals on both trips. And even before the dramatic finish, the Eagles held a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter.
There are losses in which the Eagles know they were overmatched. Sunday was not one of those games.
"This hurts. Losing like this stings," coach Doug Pederson said. "It's something we use as fuel for our emotion moving forward."
The Eagles boarded a flight back home to Philadelphia with a 2-2 record through the first quarter of the season, vexed by losing a game they should have won. Their mettle in close games helped lead them to the Super Bowl last season. It also showed in both their wins this season. A team's warts tend to stand out more after a loss than after a win.
"Anyone can beat anyone any week. We have to bring it every week," Wentz said. "We can't keep having these simple mistakes that sometimes you want to sweep under the rug. But those little things can kind of creep up and bite you."
After winning the coin toss to begin overtime, the Eagles needed a touchdown to win. A field goal would give them a lead, but the Titans would still get a possession.
It was an encouraging sign when the Eagles moved the ball easily, marching 58 yards on the first five plays. Pederson and Wentz talk often about situational football and the importance of the red zone. On a first down from the 17-yard line, the Eagles lost 2 yards. Then Wentz threw two incompletions. They were left with a field goal when they could have won the game.
"It seems like we got down there fine," Pederson said of an offense that was 1 of 4 in the red zone. "Tennessee bowed their neck and kept us to three, just like our defense has done the first month of the season. We pride ourselves in the red zone, obviously. We've been pretty good there. We've got to continue to work."
All the defense needed to do to avoid a loss was to keep the Titans out of the end zone. Even a field goal, as discouraging as that might have seemed, would only tie the game.
It looked good for the Eagles when they had the Titans backed up to a fourth-and-15 at the Titans' 31-yard line.
"Nine times out of 10," defensive end Brandon Graham said, "we make the play."
The 10th time, then, came Sunday. Titans wide receiver Taywan Taylor ran free behind veteran safety Corey Graham, who started in place of the injured Rodney McLeod, and caught a 19-yard pass to give the Titans hope. It was an elementary mistake on a fourth down. Pederson said the Eagles were out of position. Graham blamed himself, calling it a "dumb play."
"You got to know to line up deeper," Graham said. "You got to be smarter than that."
If that wasn't bad enough, the Titans faced a fourth-and-4 four plays later. Sidney Jones was flagged for pass interference, giving the Titans renewed life.
Surely, the Eagles must have felt confident when the Titans had a third-and-19 near midfield. But Marcus Mariota scrambled for 17 yards, bringing up another fourth down.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel initially sent his field goal unit out before calling a timeout and putting the offense back onto the field. Vrabel wanted to play for the win – not the tie. The Eagles defense couldn't stop Dion Lewis on a screen pass, and Lewis ran the ball all the way to the 15-yard line.
The clock was ticking under a minute and the Titans had no timeouts. But the Eagles were on their heels. With 17 seconds left in overtime, Mariota lofted a ball to Corey Davis, who caught it over Avonte Maddox in the end zone for the game-winning score.
"You're like a little kid running around in your backyard counting down the seconds," said Mariota, who threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 46 yards and a score. "This is why we play the game, to have an opportunity to win it and have the ball in your hand."
While the Titans celebrated, the Eagles could only lament how it happened. After a slow start to the game, the Eagles took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter when Jordan Matthews caught a 56-yard touchdown pass.
Maddox had an interception at the end of the second quarter to put the Eagles in range for another score, yet they settled for a field goal after Pederson called a running play with 11 seconds remaining that exhausted eight seconds.
Alshon Jeffery, who made his season debut, showed his value throughout the game. It was most apparent on the opening drive of the second half, when he caught three passes, including a third-down conversion and a 16-yard touchdown. Jeffery finished with eight catches for 105 yards, his most in an Eagles uniform. Zach Ertz had 10 catches for 112 yards.
Their win probability would have increased if Brandon Graham scooped a fumble after a Mariota pitch was mishandled, but Graham couldn't gain possession and the Titans had another chance. After a pass interference and a big gain, Mariota rushed for a touchdown to cut the Eagles' lead to 17-10.
Wentz, who finished 33 of 50 for 348 yards and two touchdowns, fumbled for the second consecutive week on the Eagles' next possession. Wentz was under duress all day, getting hit 11 times and sacked four times.
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Although the defense limited the Titans to a field goal, there might have been sweaty palms among the Eagles fans who traveled to Nashville this weekend. The Titans took the lead with just more than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and Wentz took possession with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining in the game needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win.
After driving the ball to Tennessee's 12-yard line, Wentz appeared peeved when an incompletion meant the Eagles were resigned to a 30-yard field goal.
"I was just frustrated," Wentz said. "I wanted to win the game. I didn't want to settle for a field goal. I didn't want to settle for overtime."
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What happened in overtime showed why. The Eagles spoiled their chances. The Titans were the more resilient team.
After the game, Pederson told his players that they must "hate this feeling more than you enjoy winning." They've won often enough during the last two years to know the taste – especially in close games like Sunday's. Now they have experienced the other side and need to regroup in time for Sunday's NFC championship game rematch against the Minnesota Vikings.
"They got us and we've got to own it," Brandon Graham said. "Luckily, it wasn't a playoff game. It's the fourth game, so we've got 12 more."
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