Defending champ Eagles no longer underdogs — they’re expected to win
PHILADELPHIA – They aren’t the underdogs anymore. Now the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to win. They are supposed to stand there like a champ, take the best shot and then deliver some heartbreak.
Problem is, the Eagles are still playing like underdogs.
A fresh example came in Week 5 on Oct. 7 at Lincoln Financial Field, where it rained boos as the Eagles went into halftime down 20-3, before the comeback fell short. The 23-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in a rematch of the NFC title game left Philadelphia (2-3) with as many losses in the first 32 days of the season as it had all of last year.
Here’s the pattern, with a growing sample size: Fall behind early. Rally. Sweat out the finish.
The Eagles have scored first in one game this season — and even in that win against the Indianapolis Colts, they fell behind twice in the second half.
“We always preach ‘start fast,’ ” Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson said. “If you look at all the success we had last year, we were starting games fast. This year has been the total opposite. As bad as we want to correct that, that is what we have to do. We always have a late surge in the second half when it’s too late. It puts our team in a bad predicament.”
In Week 5, the first two Philadelphia drives produced zero first downs and -4 net yards.
This prompts a twist on a certain phrase: “Philly? Philly?”
No, one season’s success doesn’t automatically carry over to the next, which is one reason the NFL hasn’t had a back-to-back Super Bowl champion since the New England Patriots repeated in the 2004 season. But the Eagles have their star quarterback, Carson Wentz, back in the fold. The savvy vets in the trenches on both sides of the ball are intact. And Doug Pederson is still coaching without fear.
Yet they are clearly in soul-searching mode.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and fix ourselves,” said defensive end Brandon Graham, who on Oct. 7 collected his first sack since his fourthquarter strip-sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII.
Graham emphasized this in the spirit of each player looking from within rather than pointing fingers, although there was buzz about defensive captain Fletcher Cox having some seemingly heated words during the game with cornerback Jalen Mills. Graham sees the bigger picture, too.
“We’ve got to quit putting ourselves in the hole,” Graham added.
If this doesn’t turn around soon, these outcomes will come to define the season. One of the advantages that Philadelphia earned last season — the No. 1 seed that allowed them to host the NFC title game — seems so distant now, especially with the Los Angeles Rams (5-0) one of just two unbeatens in the league and the New Orleans Saints (4-1) looking to stay on their heels. So there’s already some serious ground to make up.
“Nobody’s feeling sorry for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve been punched in the mouth. We’ll see how we respond. I’ve got a feeling we aren’t going to take it laying down.”
The Eagles have no shortage of fighters, which was proved during their unlikely run last season.
Yet to avoid the slow starts and weekly nail-biters, there are some noticeable markers. The Eagles had eight penalties for 52 yards on Oct. 7 that included the kind that scream lack of focus: two false starts by two players (Jason Peters, Zach Ertz) within three snaps in the second quarter, an illegal formation by one receiver (Alshon Jeffery) and a false start by another (Nelson Agholor).
The defense has allowed too many big plays, like the 68-yard Kirk Cousins-to-Adam Thielen connection that went a long way toward the Vikings standout becoming the first receiver in NFL history to start a season with five consecutive 100-yard games (7 catches, 116 yards). On the flip side, the Philly offense (albeit missing Wentz for the first two games and Jeffery for the first three) has struggled to produce the so-called chunk plays.
Still, after Nigel Bradham forced and recovered a Cousins fumble at the Minnesota 30-yard line, four snaps after Wendell Smallwood stretched for the two-point conversion run that capped his 12-yard TD reception early in the fourth quarter, it seemed the Eagles were in business. The margin was just six points.
But they couldn’t finish. An illegal formation penalty started a bad sequence that ended with a punt. Then it was the Vikings who finished with an 11-play drive and 52-yard field goal.
As ugly of a game as it was, they still had chances to win.
Yet it’s a different script now, with an essential lesson: The root to a bad finish is a lousy start.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and fix ourselves,” Eagles DE Brandon Graham (55) said.