A season that rushed to the regular-season finish line with seven wins in eight games came to a crash when New Orleans erased a 24-23 deficit on its final offensive drive, helped by a Darren Sproles 39-yard kickoff return and a 15-yard penalty for a horse-collar tackle against Cary Williams. New Orleans started that final drive with 4 minutes, 44 seconds to go in the fourth quarter on the Philadelphia 48-yard line and converted two third downs to set up Graham for a chip-shot field goal on the game's final play, sending a great, enthusiastic and passionate Lincoln Financial Field crowd home feeling down.
Final score: Saints 26, Eagles 24. And a season is over.
"We didn't play enough to win, and that's on all of us," said head coach Chip Kelly, telling the truth.
The Eagles, who won all season as a team, lost on Saturday night as a team by the most narrow of margins.
How did it happen? Let's take a look …
- The Eagles offense, which led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, gained just 80 yards on 22 carries. LeSean McCoy had very little room, picking up 77 yards on 21 carries with a long rush of just 11 yards. His explosiveness was negated by a Saints defense that tackled extremely well and cut off his opportunities to reverse field and make tacklers miss. It wasn't so much that the Saints stacked the box against McCoy. Very few of the runs to the edge picked up big yardage and the room up the middle was minimal. Without the running game, the Eagles managed just 256 total net yards, the team's second-lowest total of the season (201 yards in the October 27 loss to the Giants).
- Quarterback Nick Foles completed 23 of 33 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns and zero interceptions in his playoff debut. Not bad. But the offense got very little going until the second half, when the score was 20-7 New Orleans. A particularly telling sequence came late in the first quarter with the Eagles at the New Orleans 15-yard line in a first-and-10 situation. A screen pass to tight end Brent Celek was sniffed out and Celek was tackled for an 8-yard loss. On second and 18 from the 23, Foles held the ball, held the ball, held the ball looking for a receiver to come free. Nobody did. Instead of throwing the football, Foles held it and took an 11-yard loss. McCoy gained 4 yards on third and 29 to reach the 30-yard line, but Alex Henery hooked a 48-yard field goal and New Orleans took possession and drove 43 yards in 11 plays to give Graham a chance at a 36-yard field goal, which he drilled.
- Wide receiver DeSean Jackson had only 3 catches for 53 yards and had just 10 catches in the final three games of the season. Cornerback Keenan Lewis took Jackson out of the game and then left with an injury, at which point the Eagles made Jackson a focal point in the passing game and completed three passes to him, including a 40-yarder. Until Lewis was injured, though, Jackson was targeted just one time.
- The special teams had some troubles in this one. The Henery missed field goal proved costly, as did the big Spoles return that led to the winning points. Brad Smith averaged 24.8 yards on his kickoff returns, with a long of 35 yards. But the return game this year didn't break a big one this year, and that is something the coaches will look at in the offseason.
- The defensive effort was outstanding, but the Eagles gave up too much against a Saints running game that ranked 19th in the NFL. New Orleans gained 185 rushing yards on 36 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and controlling the clock playing without leading rusher Pierre Thomas, out with an injury. The defense contained tight end Jimmy Graham with some physical play, limiting him to 3 catches and 44 yards. In the end, the Eagles had too many missed tackles and gave up too much on the ground and that cost them on the final drive.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a missed opportunity, but it's the tip of the iceberg," said Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie. "We all know that and we are going to work hard to keep it moving in the right direction."
That's the theme, once the disappointment of the loss fades away. Losing in such sudden fashion was a punch in the gut, a massive letdown for every Eagles fan – and, of course, the coaches and players and everyone in the organization – but the future is bright. The Eagles were mired in question marks 12 months ago, but the needle is clearly moving up now with Kelly and his outstanding coaching staff and a young roster that is only going to learn from the experience of winning down the stretch, capturing the NFC East and playing a down-to-the-last-minute game in the playoffs.
The Eagles have plenty of room under the salary cap and they have some decisions to make, but we can talk about that another day as the offseason heats up.
What we know now is that the Eagles gave it everything they had, played with pride, and thrilled the world of Eagles fans. The Eagles are back, everyone, and they're building something special. They will learn from this game, and they will grow from the experience.
"We're going to keep fighting. That's what we do," said Foles. "This is just the start of what we're building. We're going to recover and we're going to come back stronger."
"It was a great playoff game, but they made one or two more plays than we did and they walk out of here with the win," said defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
True enough. And the Eagles will rise another day, once the pain has subsided and the vision for the future is clear. The Eagles have work to do, but they have a lot to be proud of in a season that sets the foundation for a bright tomorrow.