EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** Head coach Chip Kelly described it as "gritty," a 24-17 much-needed win for the Eagles on the road in a match of sluggers against the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Center Jason Kelce was a bit more descriptive, understanding what the week is like after a win at the NovaCare Complex rather than the alternative.
"It's going to be a new feel in the building this week. It always is after a win," Kelce said. "After you take a loss, especially consecutive losses, everyone is a little tighter, a little more on edge and I just kind of think that's the way it goes.
"This is huge. One-and-two, with two other teams in the division 1-2 and one team 2-1 is a lot different than 0-3. I think 0-3 would have been pretty bad coming out of this week."
The Eagles won on Sunday because the defense forced four turnovers, and because Darren Sproles contributed an electrifying 89-yard punt return for a touchdown and because Ryan Mathews kick-started a previously dormant running game with 108 yards of the team's 123 on the ground. Philadelphia burst out to a 24-0 lead in the second quarter before hanging on in the second half.
And they won because a couple of kids from the 2015 Rookie Class stepped up and did some heavy lifting to help the Eagles offset a damaging injury situation that included names like linebacker Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks on the inactive list and an in-game injury to safety Chris Maragos that shortened the bench in the secondary. Up stepped third-round draft pick Jordan Hicks and all he did was lead the Eagles with 10 total tackles, a fumble recovery that led to a touchdown and a late-game interception to stop a Jets rally, and second-round draft pick Eric Rowe, who had an interception in the end zone on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Devin Smith and another big-time pass breakup on a deep ball down the sidelines.
"Everybody contributes," said safety Walter Thurmond, who had 4 tackles, one for a loss, and a sweet tippy-toes-stayed-inbounds interception along the sideline. "Jordan and Eric came up huge for us."
In the process, they restored some swagger to a locker room in need of a lift.
"It's good to finally get on this side of the column," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We got the first one and now you can move on."
After playing from behind in Weeks 1 and 2, the Eagles jumped out on New York, forcing a three-and-out series defensively and then opening offensively with an 11-play, 59-yard drive to set up Cody Parkey for a 30-yard field goal. As the defense stamped down on the Jets' offense, allowing just a single first down until late in the second quarter, the Eagles took control of the game, and they did it with the magical feet and remarkable creativity of Sproles, the diminutive veteran who plays a huge game.
His 89-yard punt return up the left sideline turned the game upside down. Sproles, pinned to the sideline on Ryan Quigley's 54-yard boot, made Jets coverage men miss as he danced through traffic, got some help from his blockers and finally streaked into the open for the second-longest punt return in Eagles history. Parkey's PAT made it 10-0 and you feel the entire Eagles sideline exhale.
"Darren Sproles is a rare player who is just an amazing guy to watch," said tight end Zach Ertz. "He gives you chills every time he touches the ball."
Sproles did exactly that on Sunday at a time when the Eagles needed him most, and his score provided just a smidgen of wiggle room and gave the Eagles' defense a chance to feast on Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and smother a New York running game that gained only 47 yards on 15 carries.
"We need that Fitzpatrick would take some chances to throw the football into coverage," Jenkins said. "We had some good plays and we had some luck, too. That's going to happen. We had our priorities and we played our game. We were aggressive."
The Eagles wanted to A) Slow the New York north-south running game that operated without the physical Chris Ivory, who was active but did not play because of injury. They accomplished that completely. Then they wanted to B) Limit the big plays down the field from wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who ended up with 10 catches for109 yards and a touchdown, but a long gain of only 20 yards. He had two catches, including his touchdown grab, for 34 yards in the touchdown late in the second half, but by that time the Eagles were ahead 24-0.
It wasn't all pretty, of course. The Jets whittled away at the 24-point deficit first with a touchdown drive late in the first half and then an 81-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter while the Eagles' offense went stagnant. Philadelphia picked up just five first downs and 52 total net yards in the second half – the Eagles gained just 231 total net yards in the entire game, and quarterback Sam Bradford was 14-of-28 for 118 yards with a touchdown – so there are things to work on.
Mathews coughed up the football in the fourth quarter and dropped a pass in the flat, his only mistakes on a day when he stepped in for an injured DeMarco Murray and stretched the formidable Jets interior from sideline to sideline and pounded through the middle for 108 hard-earned yards on 25 carries. He also caught a Bradford 23-yard touchdown pass, beating the Jets on a wheel route down the sidelines.
"We have a lot to improve on and we know it," tackle Lane Johnson said, "but all that matters is that we've got a win to work on and now we can look ahead to playing the Redskins. All that matters is that we won."
They were bruised – missing Murray (hamstring) and wide receiver Josh Huff (hamstring) and Kendricks (hamstring) and Alonso (knee) and defensive end Cedric Thornton (broken hand) – and getting contributions from every corner of the roster, including key reserve piece Brandon Bair, who tipped three passes and played the run well with four tackles playing in Thornton's spot.
It was a sweet team victory – the Eagles are now 10-0 all time against the Jets – and it gave new light to a muddled NFC East. Dallas lost to Atlanta and is now 2-1. Both the Giants and Washington are 1-2. Anything is possible in this division and the Eagles are in the thick of the picture.
"It's only September but this was a big game, for sure," Thurmond said. "Nobody wants to start out 0-3. We came through today. We fought. We prepared like we knew it was going to be that kind of a game and it was for us. It was great to get it."
The Eagles traveled to New York to face the Jets in Week 3 of the regular season. View the full gallery here...