With the season as on the line as it can be in early October, the Eagles – in the all-too-familiar role of underdogs on the road – dug deep on Sunday night and played some good, old-fashioned football and did what we have become accustomed to them doing through the years – winning the fourth quarter on the way to a stunning and heart-stopping 25-20 win at San Francisco, improbably landing the 1-2-1 Eagles in first place in the NFC East.
A team that entered the game on the wrong side of a 49-13 second-half score through three games outpointed the 49ers 17-13 in the final 30 minutes on Sunday night. And they did it by taking the football away twice – a Cre'Von LeBlanc blitz reached quarterback Nick Mullens and LeBlanc's helmet jarred the ball loose as defensive tackle Malik Jackson recovered, and linebacker Alex Singleton intercepted a Mullens pass in the left flat and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown – to put the Eagles ahead 25-14.
Philadelphia held on after San Francisco went to C.J. Beathard at quarterback and scored a touchdown but couldn't connect on a Beathard pass to tight end George Kittle (more on him later) for the 2-point conversion and then tight end Richard Rodgers fell on the 49ers' onside kick from placekicker Robbie Gould, before the defense ended it – finally! – by knocking away a Beathard pass into the end zone on the final play of the game, a thrilling conclusion to a much-needed victory. The Eagles showed heart, resiliency, and depth to win on the road against the defending NFC Champions.
"Team effort, team win tonight," Head Coach Doug Pederson said.
For the first three weeks of the season, the postgame conversations centered around what went wrong. Late on this Sunday night, it was all about what went right, and plenty went right …
• The defense took the football away three times after zero takeaways in the opening three weeks. A Rodney McLeod interception on a Nick Mullens pass ended a San Francisco drive in Eagles' territory in the first half. Then LeBlanc stepped up with a well-timed blitz and forced fumble that the Eagles' offense turned into seven points on a perfect Carson Wentz pass down the left sideline to wide receiver Travis Fulgham, who was only activated from the practice squad a day before. "That play ended up changing the course of the game," LeBlanc said. On San Francisco's next possession, Singleton was in the right place – the flat – at the right time and picked off Mullens' pass and returned it 30 yards for a score to give the Eagles the double-digit lead.
• Wentz was tough and he was resourceful after throwing an early interception in San Francisco's territory. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 193 yards and the touchdown and interception. He also ran seven times for 37 yards, one attempt an 11-yard run for a touchdown. Wentz, playing behind an offensive line that had Jordan Mailata at left tackle and with Lane Johnson in and out and rotating with Jack Driscoll at right tackle, made good decisions, protected the football well other than the tipped pass that was intercepted, and showed his guts, courage, and leadership when it mattered most.
• Not to be overlooked, after the Eagles took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter, Pederson went for two points on the next play and Wentz connected perfectly with a wide-open Zach Ertz for the conversion. Being up 8-0 just seemed big as an Eagles offense that scuffled for three weeks scored points any way it could.
• Until the final two possessions, the defense throttled much of what San Francisco wanted to do. Kittle was a beast with 15 catches (on 15 targets) for 183 yards and a touchdown, and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk scored from 38 yards out after taking what was ruled a lateral to the right side and speeding down the sideline, leaping over safety Marcus Epps to get into the end zone. The defense line shut down the run otherwise and dominated San Francisco's offensive line. Derek Barnett beat up on left tackle Trent Williams for a half sack (shared with Javon Hargrave) and drew a holding penalty, hustled against the run, and was as physical as any player on the field. Josh Sweat racked up a sack against Williams. Genard Avery had a quarterback sack and five quarterback hits/hurries. Hassan Ridgeway had a quarterback sack. It was a terrific performance from a defensive line that has it going on right now after busting out with eight sacks against the Bengals.
• The defense reconfigured the back end with cornerback Avonte Maddox out, moving Jalen Mills back to cornerback from safety, and using rookie K'Von Wallace at safety. Epps saw some time at safety also. Singleton came in and replace T.J. Edwards at linebacker when Edwards left with a hamstring injury.
• With the wide receiver corps hurting, the Eagles turned to some young players and they delivered. San Francisco was intent on taking tight end Zach Ertz away – he had four catches for 9 yards – and limiting Greg Ward, who chipped in with four times for 38 yards on seven targets. Rodgers caught three passes for 35 yards. Fulgham, originally added to the roster during Training Camp, caught a pair of passes for 57 yards, including the 42-yarder that he had practiced with Wentz exactly once at the NovaCare Complex prior to Sunday night. "Now we're two-for-two on that play," Wentz said, chuckling. Rookie John Hightower caught a critical pass on fourth-and-4 that gained 9 yards four plays before Wentz found Fulgham for the touchdown. Hightower beat cornerback Jason Verrett on the play, running a crisp slant route to create separation.
• The offensive line deserves credit as it continued to overcome injuries – Johnson was on and off the field battling an ankle injury – and Mailata seemed to hold up well in his first NFL start. Driscoll came in and played important snaps and was part of the line when the Eagles went with six offensive linemen. San Francisco ran a bunch of stunts and loops and try to flummox the young linemen, but they hung tough.
It was a great win for a team that needed it so badly. And Pederson is right, it was a total team victory. The Eagles, battered and bruised, came together and won on the road against a quality opponent and, at the quarter point of the season, rests in first place in the NFC East. It may not be pretty, but that's the reality. And you can't take that away from a team that hopes to use Sunday night's win as a launching point with a whole lot of season still in front of us.