It was a statement game for this Eagles defense, a true measuring stick for how far the unit had come in the first 11 weeks of the season, bookended with matchups against the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins came in with the NFL's fifth-overall ranked offense, by far the best the Eagles had faced since the Week 4 loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Despite a harrowing fourth quarter that required a last-minute interception, the Eagles defense answered the call and showcased that it is, in fact, for real.
Everything was clicking for the Eagles defense early on. The pass rush was ferocious and recorded three sacks of quarterback Robert Griffin III, including two by linebacker Trent Cole. In the first half, the Redskins netted just 4 total yards passing and, despite a strong running game thanks to Alfred Morris, had no explosive plays and were completely ineffective. The one time the Redskins did enter the Eagles' red zone late in the first half, the pass rush came through, resulting in a sack-fumble by linebacker Connor Barwin and recovery by defensive end Fletcher Cox – both of whom had tremendous performances – that thwarted the drive. The dominance of the Eagles defense continued into the third quarter, during which the Redskins gained a mere 32 yards on 12 plays.
"Yeah, we did dominate for three quarters," said Barwin. "We gave up a little bit in the run game, which we have to go look at. We can't do that. When you have a quarterback like (Griffin III), he got out of the pocket on a busted play and once they got that first score, it kind of gave them some momentum and they were right back in the game."
The play Barwin referred to, a 62-yard touchdown reception by Redskins fullback Darrell Young, occurred when Griffin III escaped the pocket and rolled to the far left sideline. He lofted a pass to Young, who caught the ball behind Trent Cole around the Eagles' 30-yard line, then evaded a tackle attempt from Patrick Chung before scampering the rest of the way, untouched for the touchdown. Following a two-point conversion, the score was 24-8, Eagles, but the Redskins were just getting started on the comeback trail.
"Everybody just stayed the course," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said of the defense's reaction as the Redskins started scoring in the fourth quarter. "We weren't giving up anything in the passing game, so we knew they were going to have to beat us running. They hit two passes on us in the (fourth quarter), but overall I feel like we did a really good job."
That second big pass the Redskins hit on was a 41-yard touchdown from Griffin III to wide receiver Aldrick Robinson, who stopped in the end zone, let Roc Carmichael go by him and then caught the ball right before it hit the ground. Griffin III dove into the end zone for the two-point conversion, and just like that the lead was down to 24-16.
A Nick Foles' scramble on third-and-4 was stopped a half-yard short of the first-down marker – the original spot gave the Redskins a first down, but was overturned on the challenge – and forced the Eagles to punt again. Despite a 70-yard punt by Donnie Jones down to the Redskins' 4-yard line, Griffin III methodically drove the offense down the field with a series of big completions, including one on third-and-25. Seventy-eight yards later, the Redskins faced a third-and-1 at the Eagles' 18-yard line with just over 40 seconds remaining. Cox broke through the line of scrimmage and got pressure up the middle. In a panic, Griffin III chucked up a throw to the end zone, right into triple coverage. Cornerback Brandon Boykin leapt and made the interception to seal the victory as the 69,144 in attendance at Lincoln Financial Field let out a collective sigh of relief.
"In the NFL, you have to play four solid quarters," said defensive coordinator Bill Davis. "Four, not three. There are always going to be momentum swings. Our guys stepped up and were mature about it. Nobody ever really panicked. They were making some plays at the end, and we had to step up and make a play, and the guys did. We had some nice pressure at the end with a four-man rush, and then Brandon (Boykin) stepped up and made a great play."
"We just had tight coverage and we were scrambling," Boykin said of the final play. "They were going no-huddle, and we were kind of in a double-team on my side so when the receiver went out I was free, and I just saw the ball floating in the air and I was like, "Is this real life? Wow." I didn't care if I had to run into my own teammate, I wanted to go up and try to make a play and end the game, and that's what happened."
For the seventh straight game, the Eagles defense held its opponent to 21 points or fewer, as the team moved to 5-2 in that span. Gut-wrenching as it ended up being finishing off the pesky Redskins, the Eagles defense was able to close out the victory to ensure a 6-5 record and first place in the NFC East going into the bye week. All is well that ends well, as they say.
"It's nice that the defense is getting better every week," Davis said. "The points are what we really focus on, and the points were really low there for a while and then in the fourth quarter it slipped away from us. The guys just keep fighting, and they hang together. They're growing as a group, and it's fun to watch. We've got to finish this thing the right way."
Five games remain in the 2013 season, and the Philadelphia Eagles, in large part thanks to a stingy, opportunistic defense that has come a long way, controls its own destiny.