Before getting into any details of Sunday night’s game, I was forced to do something I have sworn against for over half a decade. Living in the D.C. area, I have been surrounded by Redskins fans almost my entire adult life. I find their organization impossible to root for, and yet have never been as frustrated as I am than when engrossed in an argument with a Washington fan. No matter how much logic an Eagles fan brings to the table, the argument ends the same way every time, “how many Super Bowls have you guys won?”
It is the cop-out of all cop-outs that is somehow supposed to erase over two decades of floundering and sideshows, most recently the saga surrounding Robert Griffin III, Mike Shanahan, and polarizing owner Dan Snyder. The 2012 season, almost disregarding the Eagles calamitous year, was as insufferable as I can remember, as I envisioned Robert Griffin III dominating the Eagles for 10+ seasons. Part of me thought that the Eagles would never be able to beat the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Because of this relationship I have with the D.C. fanbase, even though both the Giants and Cowboys have won Super Bowls more recently with them, I have never been able to bring myself to support anything that the organization does, until Sunday afternoon.
The Redskins carried a 9-point lead into the 4th quarter against a fragile Cowboys team with everything to lose. A Dallas team who has taken crumbling under pressure to an art form would have to drive down the field for two scores, while stopping a relatively potent Redskins offense under Kirk Cousins. A Redskins win would give the Eagles an opportunity to close out the NFC East at home against the Bears, making next Sunday’s game in Dallas irrelevant.
Sure enough, the Redskins got the best of me once more. They allowed Tony Romo to march down the field and toss a game-winning touchdown on 4th & goal to close out the comeback, and ensure at least one more week in the Cowboys season. In a matter of 15 minutes, I went from shaking with excitement, to total deflation.
After the disappointment wore off, shifting focus to the game, it became clear that the Eagles could gain a great deal from a strong showing against the Bears. Chicago had an opportunity to clinch the NFC North under first year coach Marc Trestman without the concern of facing a possibly Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team in week 17. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler possessed as strong an arm as any quarterback the Eagles had faced this season, and an impressive arsenal of weapons with which to use at his disposal. Chicago had just hung 38 points on a solid Browns defense and carried a great deal of momentum into the contest.
On the other hand, the Eagles were dealing with concern and questions for the first time in nearly two months. After a humiliating loss to a bad Vikings team that, in hindsight, would have given the Eagles an opportunity to win the division on Sunday, Chip Kelly’s squad had to show they could rebound from a bad showing. They would have an opportunity to do so in primetime, on their homefield, with their week 17 opponents watching and waiting.
Needless to say, if the Cowboys were watching Sunday’s game, I’d imagine they tossed out most of the film from their week 7 win, because they will be facing a completely different opponent.
With ‘nothing to play for’ (seeding was a factor), I was concerned as to whether Chip Kelly could sustain his team’s focus and intensity. All season long, the Eagles rookie head coach has preached the mindset of trying to go 1-0 every week and commit all of your focus to the opponent at hand. I will not lie, when one of the Eagles elder statesman released a tweet that might suggest otherwise, part of me feared the wrath of the football gods.
Clearly Trent Cole did not let the disappointment of the early game’s result get to him, as the team’s most veteran presence set the tone of the game from the jump. Cole blew up Matt Forte as he attempted to pass-block, and recorded the first of three sacks on the evening forcing a Bears three-and-out.
Let’s Go Redskins!
— Trent Cole (@Pro_Hunt58) December 22, 2013
From there, the Eagles offense unleashed a four-quarter assault on a Bears defense that, from the first drive, showed they had no interest in trying to stop the avalanche that was suffocating them. In their most complete, explosive effort all season, Chip Kelly unharnessed a balanced, efficient attack that left the Chicago defense guessing until the final gun. They would score touchdowns on their first three drives and jump out to a 21-0 first quarter lead in what felt like seconds. Foles would account for two of the touchdowns, the first coming on a cross-body strike to Riley Cooper in the endzone and the second on a crossing route to a wide-open Brent Celek. A LeSean McCoy one-yard plunge sandwiched in between the two Foles touchdowns indicated the Eagles were approaching this contest with the intensity of a playoff game.
Meanwhile, while most had little doubt that the Eagles could move the ball against Chicago, most analysts were concerned with the team’s ability to keep Chicago’s second-ranked scoring offense out of the endzone. Billy Davis’ unit had just been devastated by a Matt Cassel-led Vikings team that did not have their best player, and many figured Sunday night’s game to go down to whoever had the ball last. Led by Trent Cole, Mychal Kendricks and a ferocious pass-rush, Cutler was never able to get untracked and his dynamic duo of receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were relative non-factors.
In addition, after a much-debated kickoff strategy in an attempt to corral the Vikings Cordarelle Patterson, the Eagles special teams bounced back in a big way against Devin Hester of the Bears. In fill-in duty on the coverage team, the Eagles starting cornerbacks teamed up to force a turnover that would lead to the team’s second touchdown. Fletcher would strip the ball from Hester and Williams would fall on top of it. As a whole, the Eagles kickoff coverage team was excellent against Chicago, and that is just scratching the surface of what the special teams brought to the table. Even the team’s only score in the 2nd quarter, a 49-yard Alex Henery field goal, indicated more signs of promise. After an extremely discouraging start to the 2013 season, Henery has righted the ship hitting his last six and eight of nine overall in six games.
When a poorly spotted ball in the waning seconds of the half allowed Cutler to spike the ball and set up a Robbie Gould field goal as time expired, it was impossible not to wonder how the Eagles would come out in the second half. In a season riddled with ‘too-close-for-comfort’ wins against an offense with the explosiveness of the Bears, there was every right to at least consider the possibility of another flat second-half performance. The Eagles team that took the field Sunday night was not of the mindset, this was a game for the taking, and they were hungry for just that. LeSean McCoy could not have said it any better in his postgame media availability.
LeSean McCoy: Whole preparation was to come in here and dominate. #FlyEaglesFly
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 23, 2013
Fifteen games into a season, these are the types of statements a fan should want to hear from his or her team’s best player. Yet on a night when McCoy would draw to within 37 yards (18 carries, 133 yards, 2 touchdowns) of Wilbert Montgomery’s single-season record, it would be the Eagles defense that would carry the team’s momentum out of the locker room. After a masterful Donnie Jones punt was hustled down inside the five yard line by Brandon Boykin, the Bears would run a handoff to Matt Forte from just outside their own endzone. Defensive end Cedric Thornton, an increasingly impressive young linemen in the Eagles rotation, would explode through the offensive line, actually reach toward Cutler in case of play-action and with his other arm bring down Forte before he could bring the entirety of the ball out of the endzone. On what was a microcosm of the Bears’ star running back’s evening (9 carries, 29 yards), the incredible play by Thornton would, after a short review, be called a safety and put the Eagles up 26-3.
After receiving the free kick, the Eagles would drive the ball 67 yards down the field and cap it off with another McCoy touchdown. Up 33-3, the team had shown no signs of the sort of wilting that had typified some of their earlier wins. Their lone blemish would come on their next 3rd quarter possession. After a masterfully thrown seam ball from Foles, Brent Celek would have the ball jarred loose by Tim Jennings and recovered by Chicago.
The Bears would drive the ball down the field and, with the assistance of a blatant Brandon Marshall push-off, they would score their only touchdown of the evening. A two-point conversion would bring Chicago to within 22 and, at the very least, the Eagles would have to continue to respond to maintain a comfortable margin. They would do just that in the form of a six-play, 70 yard drive culminating in a 10-yard Chris Polk touchdown run. The Eagles would not pass the ball once, and their domination over the Bears porous defense would be embodied in this drive.
A Brandon Boykin interception return for a touchdown would remove all doubt from the equation, as the rout was officially on. Boykin’s team-leading fifth interception was the team’s first ‘pick six’ of the year, and 28th forced turnover of the season (good for 6th in the NFL). A Bryce Brown 65-yard sprint up the middle to paydirt put a bow on things, as the Eagles passed the half-century mark for the first time under Chip Kelly. Michael Vick was in for the Brown touchdown, and it was great to see the former starter smiling and enjoying the victory with the rest of the team. The Eagles would win by a 54-11 final and enter their week 17 showdown with the Cowboys on a roll. The 54 points were the 2nd most ever given up by the Bears franchise.
Obviously, it would have been wonderful if the Eagles could have closed out the division in this fashion. A victory lap type win like this a week before the season’s end would be an early holiday, to an extent, for all parties involved and a great gift for the fans after the struggles of the last two seasons. That being said, this team fully realizes that they are 100% to blame for that not being the case, and they owned it Sunday. Led by McCoy, proclaiming his desire to ‘carry the team on his back’, the Eagles walked-the-walk against a team that will be a favorite to make the playoffs in week 17. This could have been a game that a defense could justify giving up over 30 points, considering the caliber of the opponent. But the team on the field Sunday and the coaching staff on the sidelines were not in the business of excuses or taking it easy.
With the win, Chip Kelly ensures a winning season in his first year in the NFL. There were certainly a large contingency of experts who felt Kelly would succeed in the NFL, but still a sizable group of detractors. Say what you want about the schedule, division, luck, etc. but winning is all that matters in the NFL. There are no style points and if one could ask any player or coach in the NFL, they would value every win as much as the other. Kelly has an opportunity to clinch a home playoff game in his first season. He has shown that his offense can work no matter the opponent, and he is quickly sharpening the rest of his profile as an NFL coach. He has already exceeded my expectations and the more I watch his team, the more I get excited about the long-term prospects of Kelly in charge of the Eagles.
Nick Foles looked as calm, confident, and in charge on the field as he has all season. He would complete 21 of 25 passes (two throwaways, one into the dirt), throw two touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 230 yards could have been double had the Eagles not run the ball so much in the latter portions of the game. Foles’ ball-handling and decision-making in some of the team’s short-passing game is a thing of beauty. The second-year pro has a lightning-quick pump-fake that constantly was putting Chicago defenders out of position. The team did not throw the ball deep much against Chicago, but Foles displayed a sharp release and impressive velocity on intermediate passing. Seven different players would record receptions on the evening.
Seeing Trent Cole dominate the way he did reached me as a fan more than anything. Prior to 2012, Cole was the embodiment of what you want in a player. Despite not having the ideal frame, Cole managed incredible success from the defensive end position and often demonstrated a work ethic far beyond his peers. I am certain he would not admit it, but I honestly feel Jason Babin had an extremely negative effect on Trent Cole. The two spent time hunting together and, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be friendly with each other. They both were excellent in 2011 and terrible in 2012. Babin’s antics rubbed me the wrong way, and I found myself lumping Cole in with all the underperforming Eagles on the defense. Most, including myself, did not give Cole a chance to succeed in the 3-4. He had never had to cover in space and was at his best with a hand in the dirt, rather than in an athletic stance. After working through some of the kinks, Cole has rounded into form and now has eight sacks on the season, seven in the last five games. He is truly a force to be reckoned with again and appears to be improving as the season rolls forward.
As somewhat of an aside before concluding, there was something I witnessed during the game that struck me in a way that came as somewhat of a surprise. On the drive that the Eagles would go up by 33-3, Nick Foles would connect with Riley Cooper on a 32 yard passing play. As he was getting up, for the first time I can remember, I could hear a smattering of what I believed to be ‘Cooooooop’ chants. I could not remember substantial enough boos over the last few home games to believe it to be that, and could only assume it was the chant often associated with players with similar-sounding last names. Could one have ever imagined that sort of reaction toward Cooper given the events of this preseason? A player who had committed an irreversible moral crime had every reason to run away, hide in his shame, and avoid being a controversial figure in the spotlight. Instead, Cooper has been as mature as anyone could ask about the situation and turned himself into a vital part of the Eagles offense. I don’t know what Cooper’s future holds in terms of the Eagles organization, but his 2013 story is truly a remarkable one.
So it comes down to one game. One game, in Dallas, against the Cowboys for a chance to keep playing. 60 minutes to see if this team can keep this thing going long enough for us to really see what it is. Their opponent, the team that made them look the worst and brought them crashing down to earth earlier this season. What we saw on Sunday, was that this Eagles team is not the same one that plodded off the field after falling to the Cowboys and failing to come away as the top team in the division. Now, confident and focused as ever, the Eagles have a chance to put a definitive end to the discussion of who was the best team in what has been a bizarre division. If you could have asked me at the beginning of the season if I could guarantee nine wins and walk away with it, I would probably have said yes. The Eagles have nine wins now, but one can not be satisfied. Fans, media, and analysts alike alter their expectations on a week-by-week basis. At the end of the day, this team will ultimately be judged by the two games they played against the Cowboys. Are they the team that could not get over the mental hump of beating their division rival and turned in their two worst performances when the stakes were highest? Or were they the unit that took everything that they had experienced over the course of the season and became a stronger team because of the embarrassment against the Cowboys and won because of it? Thanks to NBC and the NFL for flexing the game to primetime, we’ll all know in about a week. I can’t wait.
“We Want Dallas”-Philadelphia