After building late leads in Detroit and Dallas, the team played sloppy down the stretch and gave both games away. The good news is that the Eagles are capable of building leads. The problem is that they have twice squandered them and lost the game. This is something the team has to fix.
Think of it this way. The Eagles are 4-0 in games decided by 10 or more points. They are 0-3 in games decided by seven points or less. This is the NFL. The majority of games are going to be tight. You cannot count on blowing teams away. The Eagles must figure out how to close out games when they have a lead. They also need to figure out how to go on a scoring drive late in the game.
There isn't one specific person or area of the team to blame this on. This is a collective problem. Let's start with an obvious area like fumbles by running backs in the fourth quarter. A Ryan Mathews fumble was the key play in the loss to the Lions. A Mathews fumble led to a Vikings touchdown late in last week's game. On Sunday night it was a fumble by Wendell Smallwood that led to a Dallas field goal and tightened the game. Smallwood was hit in the backfield and didn't have much of a chance to defend himself. That is a little easier to understand. Mathews' fumbles came out in space with him fighting for yards at a time when ball security was more important. No matter what the reason, fumbles by running backs are simply unacceptable.
Not all of the issues are turnover related. There are dropped passed, missed tackles, missed blocking assignments and just about everything else that can go wrong. While there isn't one common denominator, I think part of the issue is that players are trying to do too much. Think about the late pass play to Dorial Green-Beckham. He is a big, strong receiver and generally uses his size advantage in a smart way. Green-Beckham picked a terrible moment to get carried away. He probably knew the ball was coming his way, which got his adrenaline flowing and led to the push that was too strong. That small moment drew a crucial penalty and basically killed that drive.
Think back to the Detroit game. The Eagles needed to march down the field to kick a field goal. Carson Wentz decided not to get the ball to his underneath option and instead went for the deep ball to Nelson Agholor that pass was picked off. There was no need to go for the home run, but that's what Wentz did. If there is a positive angle to this, the young players are too aggressive. That's better than having players that are intimidated by the big moment.
The key to playing well in the fourth quarter and crucial situations is just to execute. You don't need dramatics to win the average game that is tight in the fourth quarter. Just go out and block, tackle, pass, catch and do all the basics. Right now the Eagles are affected by crucial situations. They aren't executing the fundamentals of football. One mistake can have a significant impact and create a huge advantage for the other team.
I'm sure another factor in all of this is the coaching staff learning the players and how to get the best out of them. Doug Pederson has to figure out if Wentz is better going to his right or left. Is Wentz better throwing to a tight end or a wide receiver? Does he throw the slant better than the fade? You can go on and on as you work through all the variables. It takes time for the coaches and players to figure everything out. Coaches also have to know how to handle their team. Some players need a rah-rah speech to bring out the best in them, while others are better off hearing a joke. Pederson has done a really good job this year of pushing the right buttons with his team, but something isn't working in the fourth quarter. He and his staff need to figure that out.
Pederson talked this week about the need to learn from this game. He's absolutely right. You never want to lose a game like that, especially to Dallas, but if you do, the team has to use it as a learning experience. You study the tape and discuss the situations that came up in the game and then find ways to correct the mistakes. You make plans for the next close game. Coaches will tell you that they would rather learn from a win, but if you are going to lose, you want to get something out of it.
One of the biggest frustrations with that game is that the loss overshadows the positive elements. Dallas came into the game with an offense that was really clicking. Ezekiel Elliott needed overtime to get up to 96 yards. In the previous month, he hadn't been held under 130 yards. Dak Prescott struggled until late. His passer rating was less than 50 for most of the game. This was the first game all year when he completed less than half of his passes. Darren Sproles played his best game of the year, actually out-gaining Elliott in regulation. Sproles ran the ball really well, piling up 86 yards on the ground. Linebacker Jordan Hicks picked off his first pass of the year. Marcus Smith got his first sack of the year. The Eagles offense mixed in the no-huddle attack and had good success with that. Caleb Sturgis was three for three on field goals, including one from 55 yards out.
It may not feel like it after a tough loss, but there is more right than wrong with this Eagles team. They are a couple of plays away from being 6-1. Unfortunately, they didn't make those plays and the team is just 4-3. Pederson and his players have shown they can be in position to win. They now must take the next step and start winning the close games.
There are nine games left in the 2016 season. The Eagles control their own destiny. If they fix some mistakes and start finishing off games, this team can go to the playoffs. If the Eagles continue to play sloppy football in the fourth quarter, they will find themselves sitting at home in January and watching the playoffs instead of being part of them.
I still believe in Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson. I still believe in the Eagles defense. I think this team is going to keep getting better and you should keep your January weekends open.