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De­fend­ing champ Ea­gles no longer un­der­dogs — they’re ex­pected to win

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NEWS - Jar­rett Bell Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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.

MITCHELL LEFF/GETTY IMAGES

“We’ve got to look our­selves in the mir­ror and fix our­selves,” Ea­gles DE Bran­don Gra­ham (55) said.

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