The train was officially off the tracks. Aided by a surprisingly overwhelming snow swell over Delaware County, the Eagles could not get out of their own way as they struggled through their first half of Sunday’s game vs. Detroit. Not only had Nick Foles seen his consecutive touchdowns without an interception streak snapped at 19, but the 2nd year quarterback had regressed to the startled figure staring down receivers against the Cowboys. While Chip Kelly’s vaunted offense struggled to gain yards, let alone first downs or points, a frenzied Lincoln Financial Field crowd had simmered to a snow-laden church procession. By the looks of things for the first half of Philadelphia’s attempt at winning their 5th straight game, everything fans had hitched their wagons to over the last month (Foles, Kelly, offensive line) was looking far less impressive than it had under prime conditions.
The Lions had taken an 8-point lead going into the locker room, which felt like a blessing. Had it not been for a flurry of fumbles by Detroit QB Matthew Stafford and RB Joique Bell, one could argue the game would have been in doubt before the 2nd half was played. However, as it has since the team’s early October loss to the Broncos, the defense made plays when their backs were against the wall and kept their offense in the game. Despite the spirited effort by the defensive unit, a late first half drive that ended in a turnover on downs felt like an unacceptable result that might spell the end of the Eagles’ win streak.
Even with the snow tapering off at halftime, the offense came out just as flat in the 2nd half as it looked in the first. Foles was not stepping into any of his throws, and the team’s insistence on trying to run the ball horizontally often placed them in long-yardage conversion downs. When Jeremy Ross returned a Donnie Jones punt 58 yards for a Lions touchdown, despite the failed two-point conversion, things felt very bleak for the Eagles.
It was at this point of the contest where you could figure out just how different this team was compared to teams of the last few seasons. Even with their struggles over the course of the game to that stage, 14 points was only insurmountable if the team saw it that way. The offense had to put points on the board and, with both teams hesitant to trot their kickers onto the field, it would have to be a touchdown.
What followed, from the eyes of this viewer, was a very good team waking up and realizing they were the ones preventing themselves from winning, not the opponent. The Eagles scored touchdowns on five of their last six drives of the game, with the last being held up by Brent Celek killing the clock instead of scoring. Even after Ross returned a kickoff 98 yards for his 2nd return touchdown of the day, there was zero panic on the Eagles’ sideline, as they systematically closed out a game like we’ve been pining for them to do for weeks now.
Detroit came into the game with the 3rd ranked rushing defense in the NFL, and had just held the Packers to a microscopic 27 yards on the ground on Thanksgiving. When the Eagles passing attack proved ineffective, they decided to lean on their best individual player (LeSean McCoy) and possibly the life-force of the team (the offensive line) to right the ship and take control of the game. All McCoy and the Eagles did was rush for 299 yards on the day (a franchise-record 217 by McCoy), and bulldozed the Lions vaunted defensive line and their ‘Wide 9′ defense into submission. McCoy, Foles, and Chris Polk all tallied rushing touchdowns as a tight game turned into a statement win over the course of the 4th quarter.
When the defense took the field, they took advantage of their rare second-half downtime. While Ross’ two return touchdowns were devastating at the time, they kept the Eagles defense off the field and forced the Lions offense to sit on the sidelines and lose all of their rhythm. Down 8, Detroit had made their way into Eagles territory and looked poised to cut down the margin. However, one last time, Stafford could not handle a shotgun snap and, after avoiding a turnover on most of the prior occurrences, an Eagle finally fell on top of it with Mychal Kendricks registering the recovery.
The final two drives of the game, even without accounting for any point, told the story of the contest for both teams. On Detroit’s last possession, after three straight completions, everyone knew who Matthew Stafford would be looking for to try to extend the game. He fired a pass over the middle in the direction of Calvin Johnson. Megatron, the man who could catch any and all passes thrown in direction, would be a non-factor on the final play and most of the afternoon. DeMeco Ryans deflected the pass and the ball fell incomplete. The Eagles would take over on downs.
On 4th & 12, with the game already in hand, the Eagles ran a play-action pass to a wide-open Brent Celek. Celek rumbled up the field with a guaranteed touchdown in his sights. Instead, the veteran tight end playfully slid down in the snow to keep the clock moving and erase any doubt of the victory. On a day where the tight ends, unlike last week, where almost a non-factor, the elder statesman of the Eagles’ skill players showed the sort of selflessness that contenders exhibit when the win is secured. This team has one job and one job only: winning. We’ve seen that it does not matter if it is pretty or not, the Eagles work as hard as any team in the league during the week because they know exactly what they’re working toward. For two straight weeks now, the Eagles have welcomed an NFC contender into Lincoln Financial Field and dispatched of them.
This game answered so many questions about this team and the key factors on it because of how poorly it started. For once, the Eagles did not jump out to a big lead and have to hold on down the stretch. The Lions are a team that is perfectly designed to play with a lead. Their defense has the ability to pressure with the defensive line and, with them stifling the Eagles’ run game throughout the 1st half, winning seemed unlikely considering what we had seen in weeks’ past. Very few thought that Chip Kelly had the presence in the NFL to make adjustments at halftime to try to solve issues that were presented before the half. All Kelly was able to do was unleash a rushing attack on the league’s hottest run defense, in over a half a foot of snow, that saw McCoy break the team’s franchise record set by its most iconic player.
Games in the snow are tough to analyze. It seemed like the Eagles defense was taking their chances that Detroit would turn the ball over as long as they did not give them the big play. Sure enough, untimely fumbles and a slew of problems with Stafford and his center rewarded the defense’s shore tackling and ‘bend-not-break’ gameplay. They were unable to sack Stafford and he did not throw any interceptions. However, what they were able to do was arguably more impressive than either: stop, not contain, STOP Calvin Johnson. With some help from the snow and the issues it prevented both offenses, Johnson was a priority for the Eagles defense from the jump and Cary Williams and the rest of the secondary were fantastic at keeping the league’s best receiver from dictating the game. Johnson was held to a season-low three receptions (has happened two other times) and a manageable 49 yards and, most importantly, no touchdowns. On an afternoon where a ball fired up into the sky in hopes for a reception, Johnson was frustrated and eventually rendered useless for the ending of the game. Matthew Stafford has as good an arm as any quarterback in the league, ideal for cutting through the snow. For the Eagles to take away his favorite target and force him to try to find another option was essential in earning the win.
Nick Foles looked miserable in the 1st half. His interception was awful and it was not even the worst of his throws. He missed several open targets and did not throw the ball with purpose. I’m not sure if it was Chip Kelly, Bill Lazor, Pat Shurmur, or whomever; but someone got in his ear and told him to stop being so tentative. Nick Foles has already beaten excellent NFL defenses with individuals just as intimidating as Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Foles does not have to be the best player on the offense, but he does have to give those players a chance. He looked like a different quarterback in the 2nd half. He stepped into throws down the field, he took risks with his passes, and he even became a part of the running game. As great as it would have been for Foles to break Manning’s touchdown’s without an interception mark, it is over with and Foles delivered the type of game that the Eagles need him to should they want to stay in contention for the playoffs.
So many of the Eagles’ wins have featured the exploits of individuals. Despite DeSean Jackson (receiving touchdown), Riley Cooper (3 receptions for 74 yards), and McCoy having huge games, winning in the snow takes 11 men on both sides of the ball buying in to the fact that the best way to win is to line up against the opponent and simply want it more. It cannot be understated how important having all five offensive lineman remain healthy all season, as they are becoming the heart of this team. The young players, specifically on the defensive line, continue to improve and look to have the makings of a dominant trio on a 3-4 defense. Most importantly, Chip Kelly took another step into looking like a very competent NFL head coach. Kelly has his players totally buying in to his philosophies and approach to the game. Whenever one of them talks about Kelly, the player’s eyes light up and it’s almost as if they can’t talk enough about all the improvements that their new coach has brought to the game.
Next Sunday, the Eagles hit the road for the first time in a month to face the Vikings. The Vikings just lost a game to the Ravens in about as brutal a way as possible. They have been playing much better football lately and figure to try to play out the rest of their season the way they played in Baltimore. In 2010, it was a loss to the Vikings that derailed Michael Vick’s magical season and started spelling the end of Andy Reid. While a loss in Minnesota certainly would not spell doom for Chip Kelly, it would be a devastating blow to his team’s playoff hopes. Looking back, you might have thought Eagles fans would be begging for a road game after three straight at home against teams in contention. After winning three straight at the Linc, it will be interesting to see if the Eagles can play as well on the road as they did early this season. For now, 1st place in the division (for at least a day) and a 5-game win streak is as much a reason to celebrate as any for this team in the last couple of years. For those of you still in school, maybe the good news will keep coming in the form of a day off from the snow. Tip of the cap to the Eagles for not taking a day off in yet another very impressive win.