Somehow, a near-perfect three quarters unraveled in dramatic and disturbing fashion for the Eagles on Sunday, a 17-point lead gone in what seemed like an instant, and in the locker room after a crushing 21-17 loss at Lincoln Financial Field to the Carolina Panthers, the mood was disbelief. And disappointment. Resolve to bounce back, yes, but in the immediate aftermath of a 15-minute collapse, stunned dismay.
"I don't know what happened," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "They won the game. You've got to go back and watch it and see what happened, but we lost the game and it's time to get back to the drawing board. This is the worst loss I've ever had. We were up 17-0 and they came back and kicked our (butt)."
"We blew it on defense," defensive end Chris Long said. "Offense held up their end of the bargain, possessed the football the whole game, and we blew it at the end."
Said tight end Zach Ertz: 'I'm disappointed, obviously. Up 17-0, kind of been in this same boat a couple of weeks ago (in Tennessee, when the Eagles lost after holding a 17-3 lead in the third quarter). Got to find a way to finish. It's not the ending of the game that I envisioned. We have to keep our foot on the gas. Little things at the end of the game come back to bite you. Even little mistakes you're doing at the beginning of the game come back to bite you. Tough, tough loss. No other way to put it."
What does it all mean? The Eagles are 3-4 with a game in London against Jacksonville on Sunday, and this football team needs to find a way to regroup and learn who it is and how good it can be the rest of the year. There is a lot of football to go in this season, but you've heard that before. The NFL is a week-to-week business and the truth is that the Eagles don't know who they are. They are a veteran team and they've been through this before, but the up-and-down nature of the collective performance through seven weeks has been remarkably inconsistent.
On Sunday, the Eagles were cruising after a magnificent 17-play, 94-yard drive in the third quarter that ended on a touchdown pass from quarterback Carson Wentz to tight end Dallas Goedert. The drive consumed 9:22 of the clock and Jake Elliott's PAT gave the Eagles a 17-0 advantage. Lincoln Financial Field was rocking. The Eagles were rolling with a dominating defense that had Carolina quarterback Cam Newton harassed and befuddled. Wentz completed 23 of 27 passes for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
All the Eagles needed to do was finish the game.
Instead, they collapsed in an alarming manner.
Trailing 17-0, the Panthers reeled off an 11-play, 80-yard drive to score a touchdown and get some momentum going. After the Eagles gained one first down and then punted, Carolina went 87 yards in seven plays as Newton got hot, completing all six of his passes for 79 yards, the final throw an 18-yarder to wide receiver Devin Funchess in the left corner of the end zone. A two-point conversion was successful and, wow, scary, the score was 17-14 with 4:08 remaining.
Three passes from the Eagles' offense netted 0 yards and the punt team came on. With 2:17 to go, the Panthers had the ball at their 31-yard line. The Eagles needed a stop. And they couldn't get one.
A fourth-and-10 play was a killer, as Newton found former Eagle Torrey Smith on the right side and Smith made the catch, turned up the field, and ended up gaining 35 yards to the Philadelphia 34-yard line. Newton's short passing game quickly gave Carolina a first-and-goal situation at the 4-yard line and a few plays later he completed a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen and the Panthers, improbably, had a lead.
With the wind at their backs, the Eagles came out going deep as Wentz threw for Alshon Jeffery, who was open down the middle of the field. A pass-interference penalty on cornerback James Bradberry gave the offense possession at the Carolina 22-yard line with plenty of time and timeouts to use. Surely, the Eagles would rise to the occasion behind Wentz, who was having a fantastic day. Uh, no. A first-down pop pass intended for Ertz (9 receptions, 138 yards) was nearly intercepted by safety Eric Reid – the play was initially ruled an interception but overturned by replay. Wendell Smallwood gained 8 yards on a second-down run setting up third-and-2. Wentz threw incomplete to Jeffery (7 catches, 88 yards, and a touchdown) in the middle of the end zone on third down and was sacked and had the ball stripped loose on fourth down.
Afterward, head coach Doug Pederson took a circle-the-wagons approach and said that this kind of loss could, yes, galvanize a team. He said the "pressure is off" the Eagles because "nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance" at 3-4. Perhaps that message will resonate with a team that thought it had hurdled the inconsistencies of the early season. But actions, not words, are going to dictate the rest of 2018 for the Eagles.
The margin for error is very slim for this football team the rest of the way. Blowing 17-point leads is not in the DNA of championship-caliber teams.
"We'll find out how we rebound by how we prepare this week," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "All we can do is come back to work and prepare for Jacksonville and try to get back on the right track. We had one today where we were in control and then it all slipped away. Carolina kept playing and did what they had to do to win. It's very disappointing. But we can't let this loss crush us."