In the end, the Eagles defense put the team in position to win the game. Despite allowing 123 yards rushing to the previously unknown James Starks, despite allowing the Packers to score touchdowns on all three of their red-zone possessions and despite allowing Aaron Rodgers to lead the Packers to an 8-of-13 mark on third-down conversions, the Eagles had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to book a trip to Chicago.
Going up against a vaunted Packers offense, the Eagles held the visitors below their 24.3 points-per-game average. As for Starks' coming out party, while the Eagles would have no doubt preferred to do a better job against the run, it was the lesser of two evils. Rather than let Rodgers and his big-play receivers wreak havoc down the field, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott chose to limit the big play.
And it worked - Rodgers' biggest completion on the day was only 20 yards. The only other game this season in which Rodgers had a shorter long-toss this season was his injury-shortened trip to Detroit.
"I don't think (running the ball so heavily) was their initial game plan, but we weren't about to give them a shot over the top with (Greg) Jennings and I think he had eight yards total at the end of the game," McDermott said after the game. "Our game plan was to come in and give ourselves a chance to win and I thought our players played hard and we left some plays out there, that's for sure, but the players played hard.
"If we had given them a single-high safety, who knows. But that's how they hit teams down the field with Jennings. I didn't want to give them a chance to hit the game wide open or bust the game wide open and I thought we did that. We did a good job of kind of handling, maintaining the big plays and they got us on the run game. But at the end of the day, we were in the game."
Still, there were some problems that will no doubt require addressing in the off-season. The red-zone defense, which was last in the league during the regular season, was problematic again as the Packers punched it in the end zone on all three of their trips.
"It's just one of those things we just could not get corrected all year. It came back to bite us again," said cornerback Dimitri Patterson.
"It's tough," said rookie Kurt Coleman, one of three rookies to see extensive playing time on defense during the loss. "They got down in the red-zone three times and they scored three times. It's frustrating, especially when you get them in third-and-longs and a lot of third-down situations. But at the end of the day, we gave up 21 points against a great offense. I thought this defense played very well in the second half."
That the defense only allowed seven points in the second half was encouraging. And when they needed to get the ball back in the hands of the offense at the end of the game, with the Packers looking to run out the clock, they got the job done again, sacking Rodgers on a crucial 3rd-and-10.
And yet, because there's nothing left to do now but talk idly, McDermott is sure to field questions about his performance in the second year on the job. Those questions, according to Quintin Mikell, one of the two defensive captains entering the playoffs, have an easy answer.
"Sean, he wants to win more than anybody and he puts everything into it every week," Mikell said. "Nobody wants to win and help us be more successful than he does. It's really kind of frustrating because I think he's done a good job so far. We've had a very productive defense. There are some things that we need to work on obviously, but we did some good things this year and people only want to look at the negative stuff."
For his part, McDermott understands that criticism is simply part of the job.
"Any time you're a coach in this league, it comes with the territory," McDermott said. "Listen, at the end of the day, we lost in the playoffs. Like I said, there are a lot of teams sitting at home that would have loved to have a chance to play in the playoffs. That said, we can get a lot better. We're going to learn from our mistakes, starting with me, I'm going to learn from my mistakes and be a man about things and look to come out and have a great off-season and come back next year stronger than ever."
*-- Posted by Bo Wulf, 11:15 p.m., January 8 *