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Eagles Armchair: Saint Nick visits Philadelphia early

By Tucker Bagley

It's the most wonderful time of the year! The Eagles squandered an opportunity to take the lead in the NFC East last week and with Carson Wentz out with a stress fracture in his back, things seemed bleak. Having to travel to the west coast as 13-point underdogs seemed like a cruel way for the season to end. But somehow, the Eagles were delivered from the brink by an unlikely savior. 

Going Deep

Nick Foles is the most confounding player in the NFL. He's tied NFL records and been cast off by multiple teams. He contemplated giving up the game. Just 10 months ago, he out-dueled Tom Brady and won Super Bowl MVP, but averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt in his five regular season starts since rejoining the Eagles in 2017. 

Trying to predict what he's going to do next is a fool's errand. Foles has proven to be capable of doing anything on a football field and last night was just another example of his uncanny ability to prove everyone wrong. The reigning Super Bowl MVP defeated Jared Goff and the high-powered Rams, 30-23, throwing for 270 yards and turning the ball over just once, after the Eagles already had a three-possession lead.

Foles looked shockingly comfortable under center despite being thrust into a must-win situation against a superior team on the road without having played any snaps since Week 2. He built a 17-point lead and unlocked the Eagles' vertical passing game, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt and completing three passes over 25 yards. 

The situation was very similar to last year's Week 15 victory in Los Angeles. Foles coming to the rescue in relief of an injured Wentz and stealing a victory from a superior team. The Eagles scored on six of their first eight drives and that 17-point lead proved to be enough to hang on for a close victory.

"I’m extremely proud of our team," Foles said. "It was a complete team game, it was a complete team win. That’s one of the best teams in the NFL right now and they showed it. Playing against them every single play, they were bringing it. But I’m really proud of the guys for facing adversity. That’s what we preached this week."

Wentz remains the long-term answer at quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, but after last night, it would be shocking to see him suit up again in 2018. Even if the Eagles make the playoffs, does it really make sense to sub out a guy who has won three-straight games for someone who is mending from a broken back?  

Doug Pederson wouldn't commit to a quarterback for next week's game, instead opting for some cliched answers about just enjoying the win. 

Foles isn't the talented passer Wentz is. It's hard to say that about a guy who's taken home MVP awards from the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl, but it's clear the Eagles tend to sharpen their focus when he is under center. The play-calling flows better, the execution is tighter, the defense plays with more of an edge. That isn't an indictment of Wentz's ability or leadership; far from it. It almost seems that when Foles is on the field, the other 45 men suiting up know they need to take their game to the next level in order to win. Wentz isn't there to carry them.

But for 2018, the Eagles need something special if they want to avoid making this a lost season. Their playoff hopes are still dangling by a thread, but rolling the dice on one of the most improbable success stories in NFL history may just be so crazy it works.

Injury Report

Did not play: Jordan Hicks (calf), Tim Jernigan (back), Carson Wentz (back), Sidney Jones (hamstring)

The Eagles stayed relatively healthy on Sunday night. Fletcher Cox and Josh Adams were the only two players to be evaluated for an injury and both of them returned to action. For a team that has been ravaged by injuries all season, Sunday night was certainly an easy night for the medical staff.

Measurables

4: It was a forgettable night otherwise, but Zach Ertz became just the fourth tight end in NFL history to record 100 catches in a season, joining Jason Witten, Dallas Clark and Tony Gonzalez. With two games remaining, Ertz remains just 9 catches from tying Witten for the single-season tight end receptions record that currently sits at 110. Even with his dip in production over these past couple weeks, that should be a number Ertz hits with ease.

20: Alshon Jeffery averaged 20 yards per catch and accounted for the Eagles five longest catches on Sunday night. Jeffery had built a reputation as a big-play receiver in his career, but he struggled to make plays down the field in 2018, averaging just 11.1 yards per catch, nearly 3 yards below his career average. Jeffery's longest reception of 2018 before yesterday was 31 yards, but he surpassed that number twice on Sunday night with catches of 36 and 50 yards.

2: Corey Graham has drawn the ire of fans for his sub-par play in 2018 and much of that criticism has been fair, but he now has 2 interceptions in the past two weeks and is tied for the team lead this season. Graham may be too slow at this point of his career to be left as a single-high safety, but he still has decent enough instincts and ball skills to make some big plays if put in the right situation.

History Tells Us...

The Eagles are 7-7 for just the third time in franchise history and only the second time since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule. That was in 1994, a year probably best remembered for Rich Kotite and his team imploding after a 7-2 start and finishing with a 7-9 record.

In NFL history, 153 teams have started a 16-game season 7-7 and just 27 of them have qualified for the postseason. The 2011 New York Giants are the only team to have started 7-7 and win the Super Bowl.

Up-Down Drill

Up: Alshon Jeffery

Jeffery had just 16 catches for 153 yards during the Eagles past four games, but exploded for 160 yards on 8 receptions Sunday night. Foles went to Jeffery early and often, trusting the big wide receiver to make contested catches down the field, which he did. Jeffery caught all 8 of his targets on the night and reminded everyone why the Eagles gave him a big contract in the offseason.

Down: Josh Adams

Adams had his worst performance of the season, averaging under 2 yards per carry and struggling to make an impact outside of his 6-yard touchdown run. Perhaps his lowest moment came in the second quarter when he failed to pick up a fourth-and-1 at midfield. For the season, Adams is now 0-6 on third- or fourth-and-one situations this season. The rookie employs a very patient running style which fails him in these tight scenarios when he needs to hit the hole and drive forward. If Adams is going to develop into a true three-down running back, he will need to figure out how he can pick up these tough yards.

Up: Avonte Maddox

Maddox has been the Eagles most surprising performer this season and he returned from injury on Sunday night to record an interception, 2 pass breakups and 3 tackles. The rookie fourth-round pick has now started games at safety, and both outside and slot corner. His presence in the secondary loomed large last night and it's clear Howie Roseman hit a home run with this kid.

Down: Jake Elliott

Kickers are notoriously inconsistent and Elliott has followed up his sensational rookie campaign with a less-than-stellar 2018. His 53-yard miss in the fourth quarter loomed large as the Rams drove toward a game-tying touchdown. Elliott was a huge part of last year's Super Bowl run, but after his performance this year, it is worth wondering if the Eagles will re-sign him or let him walk in free agency next year.

Three-Step Drop

1. Despite their dominating performance, the Eagles defense once again struggled in the fourth quarter, a problem that has persisted throughout the season. The Birds blew two fourth-quarter leads to Carolina and Tennessee and now have a pair of wins that hinged on last-second, goal-line stands. The Eagles have allowed 8 points per fourth quarter and 112 out of the 318 points allowed by the Eagles defense have come in the fourth quarter or overtime.

2. I've seen a lot of busted coverages result in a receiver getting behind a defense, but somehow the Eagles got both Jeffery and Nelson Agholor wide open 50 yards down the field after the single high safety bit on play action.

Credit Foles for taking a big hit while delivering that pass, but Pederson's ability to scheme two guys open down the field like that is impressive. He's now 2-0 against Sean McVay and beat the Boy Wonder with his backup quarterback both times.

3. With Foles likely to leave in the offseason in pursuit of a starting job, it's worth wondering who would exactly be interested in the Super Bowl MVP. There aren't many teams who don’t already have a veteran entrenched at QB or a young QB they're trying to develop. Washington could be an option depending on Alex Smith's health or maybe Jacksonville would be willing to give him a big contract in an effort to build around their strong defense and run game, but don't be shocked if the market for Foles isn't as lucrative as it was for Case Keenum or Kirk Cousins last year.

Who's Next

The Eagles will return home to play the Houston Texans, who have won 10 of their last 11 games, with the only loss coming Frank Reich's Colts two weeks ago. The Texans struggled to protect Deshaun Watson against the Jets on Saturday, allowing 6 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. The Eagles current playoff odds sit at 27 percent, but if they can win out, that number rises to 72 percent. Last night's win was a huge step in the right direction for the Eagles playoff hopes, but they still need some help if they want a shot at repeating.

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