For three quarters, the defense performed as coordinator Jim Schwartz hoped. The pressure up front was relentless. The edges did a magnificent job containing quarterback Cam Newton's running skills. Running back Christian McCaffery was a non-factor and the back-end coverage was tight.
It was a 45-minute defensive clinic.
But an NFL game lasts 60 minutes and in those final 15 minutes on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field the Carolina Panthers put together three touchdown drives and converted a two-point conversion and just like that a 17-point lead became a 21-17 defeat.
"On each of those drives, it was literally like one play that we've got to make, and you know, we've had that at different times this year, against the Titans (a 17-3 lead evaporated in an overtime loss). We had just a couple chances to be able to get a play to stop a drive. We weren't able to make it. We had a fourth-and-10 (against Carolina). Have to make that," Schwartz said on Tuesday.
"You know, there have been different times over the course of our years here that that's happened. But we've always sort of picked them up and made a play somewhere else along, special teams made a play, offense made a play, and then this, you know, we didn't get that done."
The idea that the Eagles "softened" their coverage or played more in "prevent mode" with a 17-point lead was debunked by Schwartz, who said he called for more blitzing in the fourth quarter than in the first three quarters combined. The Eagles lost on some of those calls, won on others. That's the way it goes.
You want to criticize Schwartz for his game plan? Go ahead. That's part of the business. Nobody understands that better than Schwartz. But also respect his honesty and the body of work he's built over the years and know that he's one of the NFL's brilliant defensive minds. The Eagles allowed 21 points on Sunday. All of them came in a 15-minute blitz. As Schwartz said on Tuesday, Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton deserve credit, too. It's tough as far as optics go, yes, but it's important to live and learn and make corrections for the next week.
What do the Eagles change for Sunday's game in London (9:30 a.m., 6abc, NFL Network) against a Jacksonville offense that has been severely challenged this season? They have to be physical, because that's the game the Jaguars play on offense. The Jags yanked quarterback Blake Bortles last week in a 20-7 loss to Houston and inserted Cody Kessler, but it didn't help. Bortles, beleaguered after a run to the AFC Championship Game last season, is the starter on Sunday. The Jaguars have a new running back, Carlos Hyde, acquired in a trade last week. They want to play ground-and-pound on offense. They want the ball out of Bortles' hands early to negate the Eagles' pass rush. They want to control the time of possession.
Schwartz will put together a sound game plan. He always does. He's one of the game's best. The Eagles have been terrific on defense for much of the season, and the truth is you can point to two plays making a difference between 3-4, which is the Eagles' record now, and 5-2, which it coulda, shoulda, woulda been had the defense stopped Tennessee on a fourth-and-15 play in overtime and stopped Carolina on a fourth-and-10 play on Sunday.
Three-and-four. That's the reality.
What's the biggest difference with defense from last year? Try takeaways. The Eagles are tied for 27th in the NFL in takeaways, with only six in seven games (the team is minus-4 in turnover ratio). In 2017, the Eagles forced 31 turnovers and were plus-11 in the critical category, fourth best in the league.
This defense isn't that defense. There is no Tim Jernigan, the defensive tackle who hasn't played this season because of a back injury. Safety Rodney McLeod, a stable and playmaking force, is gone for the year with a knee injury. Injuries have altered the plans so much in the secondary that Dexter McDougle signed with the Eagles last Tuesday and played the entire game on Sunday as the nickel cornerback. Things change. That's the only constant with the NFL.
Schwartz is an innovative, flexible defensive mind. He's got challenges. Depth is being tested everywhere. He's got a rookie, Avonte Maddox, playing safety for the first time in his life. He's moving pieces all around the defense. The point totals, really, haven't changed since last season, even with all of that maneuvering. The Eagles rank sixth in the NFL in points allowed (19.7). Last year, the Eagles allowed 18.2 points per game, fourth best in the league.
Those are just numbers. What truly matters is that the Eagles are 3-4 and they are in as much of a must-win situation as a team can have at the season's midway point. Jacksonville's offensive personality reflects that of its head coach, Doug Marrone, whom Schwartz coached with in Buffalo earlier this decade. Tough-as-nails stuff is ahead for the defense and Schwartz is preaching that point this week.
"He's a football guy through and through. He's a Bill Parcells (former Giants and Cowboys head coach) disciple," Schwartz said. "He's a tough-minded guy. Somebody asked him what his ideal run/pass ratio is and he said 100 percent (run) and that tells you all you need to know. He was an offensive lineman, played a little bit in the NFL, played major college football, and there's a toughness and an attitude to that.
"I think that's where they would like their team to be. That's what carried them to the AFC Championship Game last year. They got a couple tackles hurt. They have got their tight ends hurt. They lost their running back. Changes your running game a little bit and I think they are still trying to find that."
Trying to find it. Both teams are in the same boat on Sunday. Both teams had breakthrough 2017 seasons and expected more of the same in 2018. Both teams are working to find out who they are, what they are, and where they are going to be this season.
A season is like a game. It's a 16-game marathon. Play it to the end and look up and see how many games you've won. Put your money in Schwartz's corner. He's the one who usually comes out ahead when it's all said and done.