EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The story all week around the Philadelphia Eagles was quarterback. Would Nick Foles be OK replacing injured starter Carson Wentz for the rest of the season and the playoffs? Would the offense continue to run the way it had run with Wentz? He was, and it did.
What the Eagles didn’t see coming was this rough day for their defense. A New York Giants team that entered the game ranked 29th in the NFL in total offense at 296.2 yards per game beat that number in the first half and ended the game with 504. The Eagles had to snuff out one final Eli Manning touchdown drive that was thisclose to completion in order to get their record to 12-2 and secure a first-round bye in the postseason with a 34-29 win. It was white-knuckle stuff, and when it was over they knew they’d gotten away with one.
“We got it done today, but it wasn’t good enough,” Eagles running back Jay Ajayi said, when asked what was coach Doug Pederson’s postgame message to the team. “We have things we want to accomplish, that we want to achieve, and we can’t play like that.”
If you’d told the Eagles on this chilly Sunday morning that Foles would go a Wentzian 24-for-38 for 237 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Giants, they’d probably have pictured themselves resting their starters in the fourth quarter. Instead, they were breathlessly chasing down Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Roger Lewis while Manning and the Giants put up a point total (29) they hadn’t attained since Tom Coughlin was their coach.
“We played a Hall of Fame quarterback today, and we knew he was going to be ready to play,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “We didn’t play our best ball, but our offense did a heck of a job to help bail us out.”
Special teams, too, of course. The Eagles blocked a field goal, an extra point and a punt in this game, inflicting a Yahtzee of special teams woe in keeping with the overall vibe of the Giants’ 2-12 season. Down 20-7 in the second quarter, they needed a Ronald Darby interception and some of that special teams help to turn it around and get within 23-21 at halftime. But that’s how good teams roll, and Wentz or no Wentz the Eagles believe themselves to be a good team — one with its eyes on more significant games than the one it yanked out of the fire Sunday.
“You can’t play like this and win in the postseason, obviously,” Pederson said. “You can’t play like this and expect to win every week. You have to come prepared, and when I say prepared I mean from a mental standpoint, that emotion. That sense of urgency and that dominating swagger that you want to see your team come out of the dressing room with.”
The Eagles will need that moving forward. They talked after this game of “checking boxes,” which is where they are at this point in the regular season. Last week, they clinched a playoff spot. This week, a first-round bye. Next week, they could clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs — no small advantage with so many of their potential playoff opponents being dome teams like Minnesota, Atlanta and New Orleans or warm-weather teams like the Rams and the Panthers. The Eagles probably could have lost Sunday’s game and been fine, so much groundwork have they already laid for what looms in January.
But they didn’t like what they saw from themselves Sunday, and maybe that’s a good thing. A couple of people in the locker room called it a “wake-up call,” and it’s good to have those every once in a while, even in the middle of a magical season.
“We’ll be hard on ourselves. That’s just who we are,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “We all have chips on our shoulder. As a defense, we know what we did today wasn’t good enough. We have to get all that corrected. We want to be hot going into the postseason.”
The Eagles have come this far. They’ve survived injuries to a slew of significant players — Darby, left tackle Jason Peters, running back Darren Sprolesand linebacker Jordan Hicks for a little while, and now the big one, Wentz. They have wrecked the NFC East to the point where, with the Giants driving late in their home stadium Sunday, the loud chants from the stands were coming from Eagles fans shouting “Dee-FENSE! Dee-FENSE!”
That’s where the Eagles stand right now. They’ve taken plenty of punches but haven’t wobbled. Wentz, Foles or whoever, they’re in prime position to host playoff games and potentially represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Their defense had a rough day, but they came into the game ranked third in defensive DVOA, having shown enough on that side of the ball to convince themselves Sunday was a blip and they can shut teams down when they need to. The outside world might have watched the Eagles for the past eight days and wondered whether they can hang together, but in their locker room there is no doubt.
“Business as usual,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Nobody feels like they need to play outside of themselves. We have a lot of faith in the people in this room.”
Sunday was the kind of day that could have shaken that faith, but the Eagles got away with a win. Good teams find ways to win on their bad days. And yes, it helps when your opponent is one of the league’s weakest teams. But the Eagles made no apologies for getting away with this one. They have their eyes on far bigger games up ahead.