So close. The Eagles were oh-so-close to finally clicking. They had a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter. The defense had really shut down the Falcons. The offense had moved the ball well since halfway through the second quarter. The offense got the ball near midfield and marched down to the two-yard line. A touchdown at that point seals the game. It not only gives the Eagles the win, but it allows them to feel good about the win. They would have had a convincing victory over a team with a winning record. The Falcons may prove to be overrated in time, but they were 4-2 coming into Sunday's game. That wasn't an accident.
With the ball at the Falcons' two-yard line and a 10-point lead, the Eagles were in the catbird seat. The question was who would score the touchdown. It could be a run with Brian Westbrook or Correll Buckhalter. Donovan McNabb could try another quarterback draw. They could throw a fade to Hank Baskett or a play-action pass to the tight end. Lots of options.
Westbrook ran to the left side for no gain, but the Falcons were offsides. That meant a free yard. From the one-yard line, McNabb flipped a shovel pass to Westbrook that was stopped for no gain. On the next play they had McNabb run a quarterback sneak. He was unable to get a full yard and the Eagles had to settle for a field goal. That made the score 20-7. So much for putting the game away.
The Eagles did win the game 27-14, but style points were important. The team needed to win that game decisively to build some confidence. Having to scratch and claw late in the game was not a good thing. The Eagles also got lucky that the officials botched a call on an Atlanta punt return. The Falcons returner clearly never touched the ball, but the play was ruled a muffed punt and the Eagles recovered the ball. If Atlanta gets that ball near midfield with more than two minutes left, it is anyone's guess what happens to the 20-14 score. Instead, the Eagles got the ball and added a touchdown to seal the game.
The Eagles absolutely get credit for winning and improving their record to 4-3. They have now won back-to-back games. That is a very good sign. This is the time of the season to get hot and start winning games. The point here is that this Eagles team needs to show the world that they are good. Finding a way to win is one thing, but playing good football and closing out games strongly is another. You have to put teams away when you get the chance.
It feels to me like the Eagles are still a chemistry experiment. The offense and defense look great at times, but struggle at others. Different players emerge each week. Lito Sheppard and Chris Gocong played strong games against Atlanta, while other guys were more quiet than usual. The offense threw less and showed better balance.
Welcome back, Brian Westbrook. The Eagles' running back missed the last game out and, quite frankly, hasn't been at the top of his game since Week 2 against Dallas. He had a monster game on Sunday.
Westbrook ran 22 times for 167 yards. He caught a team-high six passes. He scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. It wasn't just the production that was so impressive. Westbrook looked great. He ran better than in any other game this season. His long run going into the game was only 18 yards. Westbrook had a 20-yard run in the first half. After halftime, he had touchdown runs of 16- and 39-yards.
The Eagles' running game has been highly inconsistent this year. Donovan McNabb and the passing game have carried the offense. That's fine for a few games, but you must be able to run the ball. The running game was strong on Sunday. The Eagles finished with 32 carries for 192 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. That's the kind of running game that many people would love to see on a regular basis.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the offensive line. This was the kind of game that those guys love. Jon Runyan had his best game of the year. Max Jean-Gilles had a solid day. At one point, Gilles threw mammoth defensive tackle Grady Jackson to the ground and then dove on him. I'm pretty sure the earth tilted off its axis at that moment. Todd Herremans and Jamaal Jackson did a terrific job of blocking for Westbrook, both on defensive linemen and linebackers. The Eagles served a few pancakes on Sunday.
McNabb even got in on the running. He came up big on the first touchdown drive. McNabb scrambled for 12 yards on one play. After getting near the goal line, he ran a quarterback draw for a three-yard touchdown.
I was frustrated on the first few drives when McNabb had running lanes and wouldn't take off. No one wants to go back to the situation of 2000 when the team struggled to throw and McNabb's legs carried the offense. It is important that he run from time-to-time. That keeps pressure on the defense. Nothing scares defensive coordinators more than a mobile quarterback.
The offense also benefited from good tight end play. Both L.J. Smith and Brent Celek looked good. They combined to catch four passes for 57 yards. Both players also blocked well. Smith catches a lot of flak from fans when he struggles with his blocking, but deserves a lot of credit for his performance against Atlanta. He helped to seal the edge for several of Westbrook's runs that went outside. Smith was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter with a big hit from Falcons' safety Lawyer Milloy.
The defense had a good day as well. The big challenge for them was slowing down the Falcons' running game, ranked second in the league coming into the game. The Eagles held Atlanta to 77 yards on 24 carries. That is half of its normal output. No one player was the reason for the good run defense. Two guys that did stand out were Brodrick Bunkley and Gocong. Bunkley really controlled the middle of the field. He took on double teams and held his ground. He drove blockers backward on some plays. He got penetration at times. He hustled to the ball when it went away from him. The stat sheet only shows three tackles and one tackle-for-loss, but his impact was much bigger.
Gocong had his best game of the year. He did a great job of "setting the edge." That is when a defender controls the edge of the formation and won't allow the runner to get wide. It allows backside pursuit to catch up to the runner who either had to slow down or come to a complete stop. Gocong finished with four tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a sack. That is the kind of production you'd love to see from him on a regular basis.
The guys on the back end of the defense were more up and down. Asante Samuel had a very mixed game. He looked great at times. He had an interception and broke up three passes. Samuel had four tackles and drew a holding call on a run play. That sounds like a great game. Unfortunately, though, both touchdown passes by Atlanta involved him. He just missed intercepting the ball that Roddy White caught and turned into a 55-yard touchdown. Samuel played the ball and tried for the pick. He missed it and White raced in for the score. Brian Dawkins was in position to make the tackle on the play, but hesitated for a moment and missed White. The other touchdown was more conventional. Samuel was a step away when White caught an eight-yard pass for their second score.
Sheppard really came alive. He's struggled with getting used to the new cornerback rotation. It also hasn't helped that most teams haven't done much in the way of three-receiver and four-receiver sets. The Falcons gave Sheppard a chance to play quite a bit and he did well for himself and the Eagles. Sheppard had a pair of tackles, an interception and four pass break-ups. He did give up a couple of completions. He also got called for a pass-interference penalty that gave the Falcons the ball at the four-yard line. Sheppard made up for the penalty by picking off Matt Ryan's pass for White in the end zone. Say what you want about Sheppard, but he does have a flair for the dramatic. It was a very good showing on his part. More games like that will help the defense quite a bit.
The Eagles are certainly headed in the right direction, but there is still work to do. The sloppy play has got to go. They need to show more of a killer instinct. Still, seeing Westbrook have a big game was very encouraging. If you can get him on a roll, anything is possible.