By: Joe Staszak
On a windy, rainy, slog fest of a day in western New York the Eagles dolled out one of their better efforts this year to advance their record to 4-4 and put themselves right back in the race for the division title. For a while it looked like the same old same old, a four point deficit to the Buffalo Bills with just over two minutes left in the first half and their much maligned defense on the field. But that’s where the game and perhaps the season changed on one play. On third and two Bills Quarterback Josh Allen decide to pull the ball down and run for the first down when all of the sudden Birds defensive end Brandon Graham got a hand on the ball, punched it free, and then made an impressive individual effort to jump on the ball himself. And just like that the Eagles had life and the ball with 1:54 left to play in the half. With a short field and the lead within reach, Birds quarterback Carson Wentz led his team on a five play, 24 yard drive culminating in a touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Goedert with.:25 left in the half. A Miles Sanders two yard pitch off right tackle completed the two point conversion turning a four point deficit into a four point lead, 11-7, at the break.
The Birds got the ball first in the second half and on the second play, a 65 yard touchdown gash by Sanders, considering how the defense was playing, really put the game away at that point. Two plays resulting in 15 points could very well have saved the Eagles season.
It was a character win amidst all of the outside noise and inner turmoil that has consumed the headlines and created a somewhat dysfunctional locker room lately. It was the Birds third come from behind win in their four wins so far this season. That’s good and bad, For the moment we will consider it a good thing. It shows heart, effort and a will to win.
The downside, if there can be one in an 18 point win, was the level of competition the Birds faced. While you can only beat the team that lines up against you, Buffalo’s 5-1 fugazi record entering the game got exposed for the outlier it was. In fact statistics and history had this Bills team deemed one of the worst 5-1 teams in history (I’m not being hyperbolic. That was actually a fact).
The most impressive part of Sunday’s win was the will that the Eagles imposed on their counter part. The Birds gave the ball to their backs 31 times for 176 yards with Jordan Howard leading the way with 23 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown. That’s the way it should be. Howard is the marqui running back on this team and a guy who gets better the bigger workload he has. Sanders had just three carries. It won’t last because the Birds running back rotation usually has no rhyme or reason. That’s why it was so important that yesterday’s game plan worked to a fare-thee-well.
It was a dominating and intimidating performance. All told the Eagles rushed for 218 yards, the most ever under head coach Doug Pederson. The offensive line was humming and loving every minute of it. Right tackle Lane Johnson had this to say after the game.
“Whenever we kind of start half-assed we can’t kind of do what we want on offense, Those are situations you don’t want to be in…We knew we wanted to run it today. Miles started it all with that big gash and momentum got going. Conditions weren’t ideal for throwing it, but we stuck to it and we went gash for gash. Better day than we had in a long time”.
You know you’ve broken your opponents will and their heart when you can tell that they have no interest in taking any more hits as star of the game Jordan Howard observed. “We were able to wear the defense down,” Howard said. “You could tell at the end of the game they really didn’t want to tackle us.”
The Birds ran the ball 26 times in the second half alone versus just seven Carson Wentz passes and they controlled the clock for 18 and a half minutes. It was text book winning football, a style that has worked for them before with the season on the line. Four weeks ago the Birds faced a 1-3 record and a virtual must win game in Green Bay on a Thursday night. Carson Wentz threw three touchdown passes that night but the offense was fueled by Howard and Sanders, carrying a big load of 26 carries for 159 yards combined to go along with two Howard touchdown bursts.
So is this the blue print for success? You would think so. Just remember Doug Pederson likes the throw the football. After all he has a 30 million dollar quarterback to play with. Wentz by the way was solid on Sunday. He was 17/24 for 171 yards and one touchdown. But more importantly he ran the ball six times for 35 critical yards. On the eight and a half minute drive to begin the fourth quarter, twice on third down, Wentz extended drives by running for the chains. He didn’t have to be spectacular as the ground game carried the offense.
But just remember the only reason the Birds pounded the Packers and the Bills is because the running game worked from the first snap. Pederson kept at it because it worked, not the other way around, It’s not that the Eagles are successful because they stick with the running game, but rather they stick with the running game when it’s it’s successful.
On Sunday the Birds ran the ball almost out of necessity. The weather conditions wouldn’t allow for a pass heavy game plan. The Eagles faced the number three rushing defense in the league on Sunday and basically humiliated them, which is what a good offense on a good team does.
Believe it or not the season is half over. If you had the Birds at 5-3 after eight games before the season began, which a lot of people did, then the Birds are theoretical just one game off of consensus expectations. Their record is average just like they are and the eye test still says that they have a lot of work to do if they are to out last the Cowboys to win the division. They’ve been a disaster for most of the season. They are very fortunate to be 4-4 with the way they have prepared and the way they have executed in the eight games so far, Sunday’s win not withstanding.
The Eagles are still looking for their identity. They don’t do anything particularly well. The next three games will tell us everything we need to know about this team. The Chicago Bears come to town next Sunday still reeling from a one point loss to the chargers and a missed field goal as time expired. The Bears are 3-4 but still have a very formidable defense giving up just 17.4 points per game. Something has to give because, despite all of their dysfunctionality, the Eagles offense has scored over 30 points in four of the eight games this season. After that the Eagles have two weeks to prepare for the six-time world champion New England Patriots. This is a Patriot team that yielded just three points to a very high powered Rams team in last year’s Super Bowl. A Super Bowl hangover in Foxboro? Yeah that’s funny. All they’ve done is put together a defense that has been even better, one that is historically dominant.
After eight games the Patriot defense is giving up just 5.4 points per game. Since the AFL-NFL merger back in 1970, no team has allowed fewer than six points through the first eight games of the season. That’s five points better than that Baltimore Ravens team of 2000 and believe it or not, seven points better than that iconic Chicago Bears defense of 1985. Both of the aforementioned teams won the Super Bowl those years. It looks like that trend could continue this year to the chagrin of the other 31 teams and fan bases alike.
After the Patriots come to town the Birds will prepare to take on MVP candidate Russell Wilson and his 6-2 Seahawks. Wilson may be the most underrated quarterback and leader in the league. So that should be fun.
The good news is the Cowboys schedule doesn’t get any easier as they have the Vikings at home and the Bears and the Patriots on the road in the upcoming weeks. 10-6 will probably win the NFC East this year but that will mean the Eagles have to go 6-2 the rest of the way. Good teams go 6-2, average teams do not. The first half of the season’s imperial data says this Eagles team is not worthy of the post season. In the second half we’ll know for sure.