The Eagles had everything that could have asked for in terms of the Saints first half performance. The normally surgical Drew Brees had thrown two uncharacteristic interceptions. The defense had the potent New Orleans attack off kilter with a physical approach by Billy Davis’ unit. With the Saints fielding one of the softest defenses in the league and a penchant for coming up small in cold temperatures, the stage was set for Chip Kelly & the Eagles to take the game over.
Unfortunately the dynamic performances that became the norm during the team’s spirited run to a division title were nowhere to be found, and the Eagles would fall at home xx-xx. Despite carrying a one-point lead into the locker room after the first half, the normally phrenetic Philadelphia offense was largely ineffective against Rob Ryan’s defensive unit, and the team’s inability to capitalize off the Saints slow start proved to be just what New Orleans needed.
The early struggles of both offenses early in the game was hallmarked by the spirited play of two of the more-maligned defenses in the NFL from in terms of yardage allowed. New Orleans was able to utilize their run game to set a rhythmic pace to their first half drives, only to have them washed out by Brees’ two interceptions. Meanwhile, the Eagles offense seemed unable to pick up the sort of chunk plays that often fleshed out their gaudy yardage totals. LeSean McCoy was unable to develop any sort of first-half rhythm, as the normally sieve-like Saints run defense did an excellent job bottling up the NFL’s leading rusher.
As far as the passing game went, it left a lot to be desired. Nick Foles was able to connect on several underneath passes, but his inability to hurt the Saints downfield probably contributed a great deal to the team’s inability to move the ball. With the score tied 0-0, following a key 4th down conversion to give the Eagles the ball with a first down on the Saints 15, a 8-yard loss on a screen to Brent Celek followed by a coverage sack that Foles had a lifetime to throw away forced them into a much more difficult scoring position. Alex Henery, whose late season consistency had put some of his early struggles on the back-burner, rehashed them when he missed a 47-yard field goal that would have given the Eagles a 3-point lead.
New Orleans would strike first with a field goal of their own. It appeared as if the Eagles defense might have come up with a red zone turnover when DeMeco Ryans knocked the ball out of Jimmy Graham’s hand as he reached for a first down. Despite being ruled a fumble on the field, the review apparently provided enough evidence to overturn the call allowing the Saints to punch through a short field goal.
Brees’ 2nd interception, a fantastic read by DeMeco Ryans on a quick-hitter over the middle, set the Eagles up with their best field position of the game. After moving the ball deep into Saints territory, the Eagles were faced with a 3rd & goal with a chance to score on their final possession of the half. After the offensive line gave him all day to throw, Foles finally found Riley Cooper running across the endzone for the second-year quarterback’s first career touchdown pass. The Eagles would lead 7-3 just a shade under the two-minute warning. The Saints, aided by a controversial holding flag thrown well after any sort of live action, were able to move the ball down the field and another Shayne Graham field goal would bring them to within a point at the half.
With both offenses going through uncharacteristic struggles, the story of the second half would come down to which offensively-geared coach could come up with the necessary adjustments to get his team untracked. Both defenses had performed well beyond expectation and, considering the strain on both units, one could not expect the stalemate to hold for the entire game. Either Sean Payton or Chip Kelly had to find a way to break through before his counterpart did.
Kelly would have the first chance, as the Eagles would receive the opening kickoff with a chance to build on their 7-6 lead. They would allow a sack and, for the second straight week go three-and-out and give New Orleans the ball in prime real estate. The Saints, apparently having addressed some of their struggles, would put together a tidy scoring drive to take back the lead. With Lance Moore chipping in on the two key plays of the drive, one a third down conversion to extend the drive and an impressive 23-yard catch and run for the Saints first touchdown of the evening. After looking shaky and uncomfortable in the first half, Brees appeared much more the ‘future HOF QB’ in New Orleans’ scoring drive.
The Eagles would get the ball back with a chance to counterpunch. On a 3rd and short, it appeared they had the big play they had been seeking the whole game when Riley Cooper sprung free on a blown coverage. Unfortunately, the dependable Cooper dropped the sure-fire big gain and forced the Eagles to punt it back to Brees and the Saints. Cary Williams would go down on a 3rd down play that would push the Saints back with a holding penalty. Right on cue, Brees and Payton would isolate his replacement, Roc Carmichael, on a 14-yard gain to extend the drive. A big connection to veteran Ben Watson would set New Orleans up on the Eagles doorstep. Mark Ingram, who was spectacular in relief for Pierre Thomas, would punch it in from four yards out and suddenly the Eagles were down 20-7.
The Eagles had to put together a scoring drive if they hoped to remain in contention. A collision between Jason Avant and the Saints Keenan Lewis, arguably their most important defender, would see the safety leave the game with a head injury. The Eagles would take advantage, as Foles finally was able to connect with Jackson for 40 yards. On a 4th and goal play, McCoy would plunge through the line from a yard out and the Eagles drew back within 6 at 20-14.
Heading into the 4th quarter, the Eagles defense would have to come up with plays to get the ball back to their offense. They would force the punt they needed for the offense. The Eagles would draw closer with a field goal to bring the score to 20-17. Patrick Chung was victimized by Brees on a 40-yard connection with Robert Meachem, allowing the Saints to kick a field goal of their own to make it 23-17.
With just over eight minutes to go, the Eagles would need a touchdown to extend their season. Foles and McCoy would team up to execute a masterful drive. The Eagles would find themselves in the shadow of the Saints endzone with a chance to take the lead. They would do just that when Foles would hit Zach Ertz and, with under five minutes to go, the rookie from Stanford looked to put the Eagles in position to close out a win.
After it appeared Alex Henery might escape the earlier missed field goal, the hopeful soon-to-be ex-Eagles kicker hurt his team once more. Kicking to one of the most dangerous returners in the game, Henery set up Darren Sproles with a cupcake of a drive to allow him to set up a return. Were it not for a horse-collar tackle by Cary Williams to prevent a probable touchdown, Sproles might have scored a touchdown. Considering the result, one might have preferred he let him score.
New Orleans would use their running game to position themselves for the win. The little-discussed Saints rushing attack would prove to be the deciding factor, as Billy Davis’ gassed unit could not prevent the healthy stable of backs from churning up yards and clock. For all the Brees vs. Foles setup that was focused on during the week leading up to the game, the Saints signal caller was perhaps most effective running quarterback sneaks rather than picking the defense apart. They would wind the clock all the way down to three seconds, positioning kicker Shayne Graham ideally for the game-winning kick. The veteran would hammer the 32-yard try through the uprights and, just like that, the Eagles magical season was over. The Saints would celebrate their 26-24 win on the Lincoln Financial Field with a damaged Eagles crowd watching.
No matter how much one tries to convince themselves the playoffs were gravy for this Eagles team, this loss hurt as much as any. Not so much that it appeared the Eagles were the better team, they probably weren’t. However, simple things seemed to cost them a chance at extending their run and seeing where it could take them. One could argue the only spectacular performance in the game from an offensive standpoint was Mark Ingram, whose 97 yards on 18 carries proved invaluable for New Orleans. LeSean McCoy was held to just 77 yards on 21 carries, DeSean Jackson would catch three passes for 53 yards, and Nick Foles would go 23-33, but only average 5.9 yards per attempt. One cannot discount his two touchdown passes in the red zone, an area that Foles excelled in all season, but this was by no means his strongest performance. Give credit where credit is due to the Saints. For the second straight week, a maligned defense got the better of Chip Kelly and the Eagles offense, only this time the Eagles could not emerge victorious.
Often times, it is games like this that define playoff football. No team appeared that much better than the other. A bounce here, a call there, a kicker who knows how to kick the field goals he’s supposed to make often makes the difference. What if the referees decided not to overturn the Jimmy Graham non-fumble? What if Riley Cooper catches the 3rd down play on the Eagles second drive out of the half? One can drive him or herself crazy with the hypotheticals.
The fact of the matter is the Eagles, a 4-12 team a year ago with a second year quarterback that was starting in his first playoff game ever, went toe-to-toe with a Super Bowl coach-quarterback combo and nearly came away with the win. The weather was irrelevant. The crowd, while spirited and a source of pride for this team, could not change the fact that the Saints had put together a gameplan they thought could be effective. They were able to execute when it counted and make the winning plays that champions do. One can question some of Chip Kelly’s clock-management decisions or how they were unable to stop a running attack without its leading rusher. For one, when teams are good enough to make the playoffs, they trust the players on the field and injuries are something that the best teams overcome. The Eagles fielded Patrick Chung at safety for the better part of this season and almost won a playoff game. The Saints lost Pierre Thomas but Sean Payton had faith in his other backs to put the ball in their hands and keep it out of the Eagles offense.
The loss stings like no other. For as unlikable as the last two teams under Andy Reid were, this was as enjoyable an Eagles team to follow as one can remember. Despite probably not having the talent in all the right places that they wanted, the Eagles coaching staff were able to elicit the types of performances that were absent in the two seasons since their last playoff loss. Recapping the season after a loss this painful would be a discredit to the accomplishments of the team. For as much joy as the team brought us over the regular season, it has now also brought on a pain that one would not think was possible after the numbing performances of the ‘Dream Team’ and last year’s dumpster fire.
It was a treat for me to cover Eagles games this season. For some of the faults that he showed, Chip Kelly brought his team to within one stop of keeping the ride going. Strong character teams build from losses like Saturday night’s. It is up to the Eagles, as both an organization and a family, to use the pain from this evening as a driving force moving forward. They were riding high and were beat by a better team, on Saturday night at least. If the two teams were to play out the game 10 times, it would be impossible to argue one team would win more than the other. Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, a renewed sense of pride in Philadelphia, it took a last-second field goal to decide the winner of one game. The chips would not fall the way the Eagles wanted, but that is the league they play in. Let the hurt sink in for a night, but remember the joy this team brought you. Face it, Philadelphia…whether you like it or not, the numbness of 2011 and 2012 is over and its time to get back on the roller coaster that is being a Philadelphia Eagles fan. It hurts so good.