Chip Kelly’s team found new life with the return of Sam Bradford and a trio of special-teams and defensive touchdowns.
By Mike Diviney
Heading into Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles were regarded as sheep for the slaughtering, having surrendered 90 points in consecutive weeks for the first time in their 83-year history. The Patriots were 10-1 and rolling towards their annual first-round playoff bye.
Nobody told the Eagles, who, on the ride from Philadelphia and Boston, found their professional and personal pride. Had the Eagles lost this game, their season would have assuredly been over, and many daunting statistics indicated that was exactly what was to come.
Over the course of the past almost seven seasons, the Patriots had amassed a home record of 51-4, which means they lose at home an average of once every two years. The Patriots had not lost back-to-back games in more than three years. Under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, the team has been 94-0 in home games when leading by 8 or more points.
That last statistic was most relevant when the Eagles offense sputtered early and the Patriots took a 14-0 lead. From that point, the Eagles scored 35 straight points, as the stunned Patriots could not stop the onslaught.
Belichick opened the door when he called for an onside kick with a 14-0 lead. The coach was challenging his opponents to stop the Patriot offense, and thought little of the Eagles moving the ball well, even with a short field.
Four minutes later, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford found tight end Zach Ertz in the end zone to cut the lead to 14-7. Over the next 23 minutes of the game, the Eagles defense continually harassed Tom Brady, sacking him four times, knocking him down countless more, and forcing him into two bad interceptions.
The defensive pressure, Belichick’s mismanagement of the clock at the end of the first half, and stellar play by the Eagles special teams allowed the Eagles to tally three non-offensive touchdowns.
A blocked punt by special-teamer Chris Maragos and its subsequent return for a touchdown by Najee Goode started the blitzkrieg. In the third quarter, Malcolm Jenkins intercepted a Brady pass at the goal line and returned it 99 yards for another score. Less than three minutes later, Darren Sproles went 83 yards for his second punt-return touchdown of the season. Then, with 11 minutes left in the game, Bradford found Jordan Matthews in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
But even down 35-14 at home, the Patriots would not go quietly. Brady hit Scott Chandler to make it a two-score game with five-and-a-half minutes left. Then, the Eagles made a grave error, and allowed the Patriots to recover an onside kick. After driving, Brady plunged over the goal line from a yard out and, suddenly, the Eagles’ lead was down to seven with three minutes to play.
Belichick again called for the onside kick, and this time, wideout Riley Cooper went airborne to knock the attempt out of bounds. A few plays later, Cooper went airborne again to convert a huge third down. The Eagles were well into New England territory and in position to pin the Patriots deep with a punt. Instead, former Oregon Duck Kenjon Barner fumbled the football and the Patriots recovered.
For Eagles fans, the Patriots’ final drive was exhausting, but in the end, exhilarating, as Brady’s receivers dropped catchable balls no fewer than three times. It was not until there were three zeroes on the clock that any Eagles fan exhaled with relief, the team again having rescued the season they themselves had placed in jeopardy.
The Eagles offense did not put up gaudy numbers, in part, because with three, non-offensive touchdowns, there were long stretches where they just were not on the field. However, some interesting developments took place.
As the feature running back, the underused Darren Sproles accumulated 100 yards from scrimmage in addition to his punt return touchdown. Demarco Murray was again putrid, finishing with eight carries for 24 yards after having started with 2 yards on six carries; he was effectively benched for Barner, who had nine carries for 39 yards.
Clearly, Murray is not the same back who shouldered a historically heavy workload last year. He is continually asked to run horizontally, which he has never had success doing. His huge contract means the Eagles are stuck with him for at least the next two of the remaining four years on his contract.
The fact that Murray is even on the team is a blunder by Chip Kelly. Kelly said the Eagles traded Lesean McCoy because McCoy ran east-west too often; instead, he signed Murray, who had a reputation as a big, downhill runner—and then called east-west running plays for him.
Kelly simply did not like Lesean McCoy’s personality, and ended up getting an injured, ineffectual linebacker in Kiko Alonso in return for him. Kelly too often allows his dictatorial style to affect his judgment, which leads to him shedding talented players for nothing or very little.
On the bright side, offensively, Bradford has found his stride somewhat and has played well in his last three games.
The Eagles’ complete reversal as soon as Bradford came back gives credence to the notion that the defense had no faith in Mark Sanchez and subconsciously allowed it to affect their play. If that is the case, shame on them, but it bears mentioning. Whether this monumentally important and improbable win is a springboard to playoff hopes or just a setup for further disappointment remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: the Eagles are tied for first place in the NFC East with the Giants and the Redskins, and, after home games with the Bills and the Cardinals, will face those two teams to close out a difficult season. Yet they still have the opportunity to control their own destiny, and can see a clear path to the playoffs.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison. https://goo.gl/gxOWSC