Much like the case has been all season, the Eagles found themselves in a position where they had to sweat out a win in a game they were firmly in control of. The main difference in Sunday’s game, the Cardinals are a very good team with players on both sides of the ball who can shift a contest with one play. Let’s face it, heading into the game, the stakes had risen quite a bit since the last time the Eagles were on the field. Whether it was Bruce Arians subtle criticism of Chip Kelly’s offense or the official announcement of Nick Foles as the 2013 starter, the game had a playoff-like atmosphere when kickoff finally arrived. You had to wonder how Chip Kelly would respond to his first bye week as a NFL head coach, especially against a team that was becoming a darling of the NFL media, deservedly so. With the Cowboys already taking care of business on Thanksgiving by beating the Raiders, a loss would set the Eagles back into 2nd place in the division. The Eagles were somewhat lucky when Cardinals leading rusher Andre Ellington was listed as inactive for the day. While Rashard Mendenhall has undergone a bit of a resurgence in the desert, Ellington was one of the more impressive rookie runners on the season. The two made up a dangerous one-two punch adding to the Cardinals potent passing attack.
In an interesting move, the Eagles deferred the opening coin toss, giving Arians and the Cardinals the ball first. Carson Palmer was coming off of three straight weeks without a turnover, and aside from Foles, might have been the hottest quarterback in the NFC. It would be important for the Eagles not to allow Palmer to develop a rhythm, considering his talented crop of receivers. Fortunately, Billy Davis’ unit put their stamp on the game early. Trent Cole, who continues to visit the fountain of youth, beat his blocker clean off the edge and stripped Palmer cleanly for the fumble. Bennie Logan fell on top and the Eagles offense was in business.
The first drive indicated what Chip Kelly felt was the weakness of the Cardinals defense: defending the tight end. Foles targeted Brent Celek on three straight passes, two of which were completions. After Celek rumbled down to the 6-yard line, the Eagles opted to use play-action, isolating Zach Ertz in space. Foles put the ball right on the money and before you could blink, the Eagles were up a touchdown.
While it wasn’t necessarily a back-breaking drive, to score a touchdown against a very strong Cardinals defense was a huge first blow. The fact that it came off of a Carson Palmer turnover was even more important. The Cardinals moved the ball efficiently again on their last drive, yet Palmer trusted his receiver a bit too much, lofting a ball toward the endzone only to have Nate Allen haul in the interception. Allen brought it back near midfield, and the once maligned Eagles safety dealt another blow to Palmer’s confidence.
After the teams exchanged empty drives throughout the end of the 1st quarter and into the 2nd, things started to get interested. The Cardinals benefited after a muffed putt, recovered by an Arizona player, was returned into Eagles territory instead of another turnover. A few plays after Mendenhall converted on a 4th and short, the Eagles defense had their worst lapse of the afternoon. On 3rd and 20, Palmer hit Larry Fitzgerald about 17 yards down the field. Brandon Boykin was trailing closely, but Patrick Chung came in and cleaned him out before he could attempt a tackle. Fitzgerald galloped in for the 43-yard touchdown and the game was tied.
Another solid Eagles drive landed them with a first and goal on the Cardinals’ 6 yard line. However, an inexplicable play where Brad Smith was in at QB and a few busted attempts forced Philadelphia to settle for an Alex Henery field goal making it 10-7.
The defense was fantastic after giving up the touchdown to Fitzgerald. They were able to get Arizona off the field with enough time for the Eagles to capitalize before the halftime intermission. With the Eagles receiving the ball after the break, any score was crucial toward making the decision pay off. The drive going into the locker room was magnificent. Starting with a beautifully lofted pass to DeSean Jackson for 25 yards (putting Jackson over 1,000 for the season for the 3rd year), the Eagles hummed down the field picking up big chunks of yardage. They were able to convert a 4th and short on a LeSean McCoy run and, following a pass interference penalty in the endzone, found themselves on the one-yard line. Once again, they wasted no time, as Foles hooked up with his other tight end, Brent Celek for a one-yard touchdown with only :19 on the clock.
By scoring on their first possession and right before the half, the Eagles maximized the benefit of kicking off to begin the game. Chip Kelly’s offense is not always as efficient as we want it to be, but they do have a tendency to score at the times that provide the most benefit from a big picture standpoint.
Sticking with that trend, the Eagles first drive in the 3rd was another thing of beauty. Foles loosened up the defense with a few runs on read-option plays. Just as the offense appeared to gain their footing with the ground game, Kelly decided to go to the air again. On perhaps his most impressive touchdown over the last few weeks, Foles ripped a pass through the air hitting Ertz in stride for his 2nd score of the game. The 24-yard completion put to rest a lot of questions regarding arm strength, as Foles had to fit his pass in between a zone.
Up 24-7, the Eagles had put their opponent in a position where they would have to make the most of their drives for the remainder of the game. Bruce Arians and his offense were up to the challenge, as they shook off their first half struggles as best they could. With a steady dose of Mendenhall on the ground, Arizona moved into scoring position rather quickly. They drew within 10 when Palmer hit Michael Floyd on a 3rd & 9 play where there was a clear mix-up in the Eagles secondary. After taking over five minutes off the clock, the Cardinals had to score a touchdown and credit to them, Palmer made some big-time throws when he had to.
Thus began the stalling of the Eagles offense. Their inability to pick up first downs over the remainder of the game had fans, and the analysts calling the game, baffled as they were unable to take substantial time off the clock. Cary Williams came down with an interception in the 3rd quarter, allowing the offense to take a bit more time off the clock, but with no results coming from it. Williams had a couple of gaffes during the game, but held his own against Larry Fitzgerald for the most part, and had one of his better games overall.
At the start of the 4th quarter, the Eagles could have put the finishing touches on a much easier win. After the defense forced a three-and-out deep in Cardinals’ territory, Dave Zastudil kicked a short, line drive punt to DeSean Jackson. Jackson looked like he decided he was going to score before he caught the ball. In a blink, DeSean was in the endzone, seemingly putting the stopper on any plans for a Cardinals comeback. However, a shaky holding penalty on Kurt Coleman, who was nowhere near the play, negated the return and kept the deficit at 10.
Halfway through the 4th quarter, the Cardinals took over on their own 14 yard line. A couple intermediate completions, and a controversial long pass to Andre Roberts set Arizona up in Philadelphia territory. On 2nd and goal, Palmer hit a wide open Jim Dray for a three-yard score and the Cardinals had climbed all the way back within a field goal. Another stalled Eagles drive would give Arizona the ball back with just over two minutes left in the game. Donnie Jones, who I will talk about later, pinned the Cardinals within their own 20 one last time, giving Palmer a chance to drive his team down the field.
Fortunately, an afternoon of a heavy Eagles pass rush and multiple turnovers had the veteran QB rattled. He misfired on a wide-open 3rd down pass to Andre Roberts, who was clear beyond the marker. Next, on 4th & 5, Palmer threw a pass off his back foot toward Michael Floyd. Whether or not there was contact prior to the catch was debatable. That being said, this was a physical contest and there was a great deal of jostling between receivers and defensive backs and there were far worse atrocities that the one the Cardinals felt Bradley Fletcher committed. The pass fell incomplete and the Cardinals would turn it over on downs.
The final drive was a bit more eventful than it had to be. After two short plays on 1st and 2nd down, with the clock running, the Eagles elected a play-action pass on 3rd and short. Foles rolled right, clearly looking for tight end James Casey. Casey was engaged as a blocker with Matt Shaughnessy, and just as he broke away into his route, the Cardinals defender violently tugged at his jersey. The timing of the play was ruined and Foles gave himself up for the sack. However, the officials called defensive holding on Shaughnessy giving the Eagles an automatic 1st down and effectively ending the game.
There were controversies to be argued on both sides of this game. At the end of the day, this was a showdown of two teams who have done more than enough to find themselves in the playoff conversation. The Eagles ended up on top by a 24-21 margin, winning their 4th in a row and improving to 7-5. They are still in control of their own destiny, with the week 17 showdown with the Cowboys still potentially deciding who represents the NFC East in the playoffs.
Undoubtedly, there are valid criticisms of Chip Kelly’s in-game approach to coaching. There are times where you want to yell at him to tell Nick and the offense to slow down, but with Kelly you have to know what you signed up for. Kelly is where he is, after a short time coaching, because he has not changed his philosophy. He has succeeded at every level because he employs a philosophy through the good times and the bad and trusts that it will work more than it doesn’t. Sunday’s game was a perfect example of the give and take of following a Chip Kelly coached team. For the majority of the contest, Kelly’s offense made one of the strongest defenses in the NFL look rather pedestrian. There were a lot of free-running receivers and Foles was generally pretty good about finding them. Even as Foles started to take more sacks in the 2nd half, you could see Kelly’s teachings pasted all over the Philadelphia quarterback. Foles, for the most part, was excellent at taking what the defense gave him, and cutting losses when he did not see anything. The offensive line was stellar on the team’s scoring plays, but they were going up against a front with two potential all-pro ends bracketing a very impressive nose tackle in Dan Williams. I find myself doing the same at times, but it feels unfair to ask Chip Kelly to tell his offense to go out against a GREAT defense and simply ‘move the ball at will’. Just because they were able to do so in the 1st half (or 2nd half), does not ensure a complete 60-minute exhibition of offense. This is still the NFL and, at the end of the day, winning close games like this is what prepares team for the swings of a postseason pursuit. The Eagles are 7-5 through three-quarters of Chip Kelly’s first season. For everyone who immediately compared Kelly to Steve Spurrier, the former Redskins coach won seven games his first season, and lost nine. At the very least, from a pure wins-losses standpoint, Kelly is at the very least equal to Spurrier.
As far as the game goes, this was a battle, just in a less traditional sense. Foles was excellent in the first half and the first drive of the 3rd quarter. He hit targets in stride and, once again, looked extremely calm doing so. His first interception of the 2013 season almost came in disastrous fashion, as he fired a ball to no one in particular while he was being dragged down for a sack late in the 4th quarter. Patrick Peterson came up with the apparent turnover but it was overturned when an apparent holding call on Tyrann Mathieu gave the Eagles an automatic first down.
Donnie Jones, yes the punter, was probably the team’s best player as far as playing his position perfectly. Two weeks after bombing a career-long 70 yard punt against the Redskins, Jones, with some help by the Cardinals special teams, kicked a 69 yard punt to alleviate the Eagles from a bad field-position situation. He also set a team-record with seven punts inside the 20-yard line, the 3rd highest total since the NFL made it a stat in 1976. Much like Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams, etc. Jones is a low-key offseason addition that is paying huge dividends.
The defense, while not as sound as they had been at times in weeks past, was much more active from a playmaking standpoint. You can see the confidence in the secondary growing, as they attack balls for interceptions rather than waiting for the receiver to make a play. After week 3, if you would have told me that Nate Allen was the team’s steadiest presence on the back-end, I’d say you were crazy. Credit where credit is due though, as Allen has played a solid game for most of the season including Sunday vs. the Cardinals.
It was great seeing Zach Ertz have a breakout game against a good team. Ertz is the type of talent that can make plays on his own. I’m not cementing him as the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, but you saw a lot of similarities over the course of Ertz’s game. He used his body to shield the defender on his second touchdown, made a spectacular fingertip catch for a first down earlier in the game, and appears more confident every snap. If Foles is the quarterback of the future, to have him grow alongside a special talent like Ertz at the tight end spot is invaluable. The tight end is the quarterback’s best friend and, while Brent Celek continues to show he is a force in this league, it is nice knowing the Eagles have a second option with star potential. Five receptions, 68 yards and a couple of touchdowns for Ertz feels like its only the beginning.
The team had to scratch and claw for every yard rushing. The only way a team like the Cardinals, who blitzes with such frequency, can succeed is if they have good tacklers. On every level of the defense, the Cardinals have sure defenders that force losses of yards, keep short gains short, and prevent medium gains for going for big plays. LeSean McCoy had a very workmanlike 79 yards on 19 carries, but ran well enough to keep the Cardinals focused on stopping the ground game.
So Chip Kelly is 1-0 coming out of a bye and has three straight games coming up against the NFC North before the finale against the Cowboys. It is tough to take the pulse of their upcoming opponents, as the Lions, Bears, and Vikings have all been extremely inconsistent as of late. The defense will have their hands full next week with the arrival of Calvin Johnson and a high-octane Lions offense. It will be interesting to see how different their scheme is for Detroit’s offense after playing a team that relied so heavily on multiple targets. Most importantly, I think the Eagles are at a point of their season where they should not worry about what their opponent is doing necessarily. Chip Kelly’s philosophies work, the Eagles get into trouble sometimes with it but you cannot argue with results. The team is healthy, and therefore does not have to compensate or change. With four straight wins, the Eagles are climbing the ranks in the NFC as contenders fall by the wayside. Next Sunday’s home game vs. the Lions will be another great barometer for the type of future this team has in both the short and long-term.
By the way…if Nick Foles throws one touchdown before throwing an interception vs. the Lions, he ties Peyton Manning for most touchdowns to start a season without a pick. Let that, along with the win, sink in for a bit.