THERE ARE LEGIT REASONS FOR EAGLES NATION TO BE CONCERNED AS PLAYOFFS GET UNDERWAY
The Eagles finished with their best record in history and secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
There should be great joy right now in the City of Brotherly Love.
But Eagles fans being sky-is-falling worry-warts, that joy has been muted by a large dose of trepidation as the playoffs begin.
The back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Saints without Jalen Hurts and the closer-than-it-should-have-been win over the Giants’ JV team are causing sleepless nights over those non-refundable plane fares to Phoenix next month.
“Do we feel like we played a great game?’’ Nick Sirianni said a bit defensively after the Eagles’ 22-16 win Sunday. “No, not by any means. But this team should be confident, right? That doesn’t mean cocky, it means confident with all the things that we have been able to accomplish this year.’’
For much of the year, the Eagles looked like a team that was going to sail to Super Bowl LVII. Eight straight season-opening wins by an average of 11 points.
An unexpected hiccup against Washington thanks to four turnovers, but then five more wins without a loss, including a 48-22 Week14 manhandling of the Giants’ varsity.
Then Hurts sprained his throwing shoulder in Week 15 after getting body-slammed by Bears defensive end Trevis Gipson, and all of a sudden it got awfully quiet in Philly.
In a perfect world, Hurts would’ve sat out the final three games and had five weeks to let his shoulder heal. But it hasn’t been a perfect world lately for the Eagles.
The Eagles committed four more turnovers in a 40-34 Week 16 loss to the Cowboys. A week later, a shocking 20-10 home loss to the Saints.
With the No. 1 seed and first-round bye still not secured, Sirianni had to hurry a still-healing Hurts back and send out his starters Sunday against the Giants’ backups Sunday and pray no one else got seriously hurt.
He had hoped he’d be able to get Hurts & Co. out of the game by halftime, but the Eagles struggled to put the game away and ended up winning by just six.
So, here we are.
To be sure, there are some legitimate reasons for trepidation right now. Some of those reasons:
THE TURNOVER SITUATION
The Eagles had a league-best plus-15 turnover differential after their 8-0 start. A league-high 18 takeaways. A league-low three giveaways. They won the turnover battle in each of their first eight games.
In the nine games since then, the Eagles have a minus-7 turnover differential. Just nine takeaways. Sixteen giveaways, including 11 in their three losses to the
Commanders, Cowboys and Saints. Those 16 giveaways are the most in the league since Week 9.
If the Eagles are going to make it to the Super Bowl, they need a dual-threat Jalen.
Hurts has improved tremendously as a passer this season. A lot of it has had to do with the addition of wide receiver A.J. Brown. But a lot also has had to do with the dramatic improvement he has made with his decision-making and mechanics.
He’s made huge leaps in almost every significant passing category this season. He’s jumped from 22nd to fourth in passer rating, from 15th to third in yards per attempt, from 26th to 11th in completion percentage, from 24th to 12th in touchdown percentage, from 13th to fourth in interception percentage and from 17th to fourth in completions of 25 yards or more.
But what makes Hurts really dangerous, what makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses, is what he also can do with his legs. His 13 rushing touchdowns are tied for the second most in the league. Only Lions running back Jamaal Williams has more (17).
Hurts is third in the NFL in rushing first downs with 67. Just two players have more –
Raiders running back and league rushing champ Josh Jacobs, who has 93, and Browns running back Nick Chubb, who has 69.
Hurts also is second in rushing first downs on third down with 28, which is a big reason the Eagles are fourth in the league in third-down efficiency (46.0%).
With a little help from his friends – the Eagles are the masters of the Tush Push -- he is close to a sure thing on quarterback sneaks, converting 16 of 19 third-and-ones and nine of 10 fourth-and-ones.
The Eagles own the most productive red-zone offense in the league – or at least they did until Sunday when they converted just one of five red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and slipped to third -- largely because of Hurts’ running ability.
In their first 14 games before Hurts injured his shoulder, 101 of their 147 plays in the red zone were runs. Forty-four of those 101 were by Hurts, who had 22 rushing first downs and 11 rushing touchdowns in the red zone.
The reason they struggled so much in the red zone Sunday was because defensive coordinator Wink Martindale knew Hurts wasn’t going to run and planned accordingly.
Hurts isn’t going to hold back in the playoffs. Whether his shoulder is 100 percent or whether it’s not, he’s going to run the ball. But it clearly wasn’t 100 percent Sunday against the Giants.
“I had some things I had to battle within myself,’’ Hurts said. “I was pushing myself to be available, and it wasn’t an easy thing. It’s still not easy. But it was good enough to win.’’
All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson tore his adductor muscle in the second half of the Eagles’ Week 16 loss to the Cowboys. The injury, commonly known as a sports hernia, is going to need surgery. But Johnson plans to return for the playoffs and has put off the surgery until after the season.
What’s unknown is how effective Johnson will be playing with a significant core-muscle injury. How much will it impact his power? How much will it affect his ability to slide laterally when he’s battling elite edge-rushers? To be determined.
“Every single one of these injuries is unique,’’ said Boston-based sports medicine expert Dr. Jessica Flynn. “Because this isn’t like one tendon. There are multiple tendons involved and it really depends on how many of them are torn, how much they’re torn, how everything else in the abdominal core muscle area looks.
“He’ll definitely be playing in pain. I don’t think there’s a question of him being able to play through pain. It’s how effective can he be. And nobody can know that right now.’’
Jack Driscoll has started the last two games at right tackle in Johnson’s absence. Driscoll is a competent backup. But he’s not Johnson, who hasn’t given up a sack in nearly 1,000 offensive snaps.
Jonathan Gannon’s unit has made more big plays on third down than any defense in the league this season.
Thirty-four of their franchise-record 70 sacks have been on third down. Eight of their 17 interceptions have been on third down. But when they’re not making big plays they’re giving up too many yards and first downs.
They have just the 14th best third-down success rate in the league on third down (38.6). In their last four games, opponents have converted 41.4% of their third downs against the Eagles. Only nine defenses have a worse third-down rate over the last four games than the Eagles.
Opponents have converted 21.4% percent of their third downs of 10 yards or more in the last four games, including that infamous third-and-30 in the Dallas game, as well as a 12-yard touchdown pass by the Cowboys on third-and-12.
But the playoffs are a new beginning. Five years ago, after Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending ACL injury late in the season, everyone gave up on a 13-3 Eagles team that had to turn to Nick Foles.
They didn’t play very well in late-season wins over the Giants and Raiders. They needed a large bit of good fortune to avoid being eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Then they caught lightning in a bottle and won the Super Bowl.
Will that happen again this season? Or are the recent bad vibes a preview of what’s to come?
We’ll find out soon enough. That’s why they play the games. *