The Eagles knew going in that they had the slimmest of margins for error against an unbeaten Denver team, so the approach the offense took was to grind out an attack, move the chains, and keep the game close. The strategy worked for a half.
A strong running attack made it a game for a half, but then the Broncos simply overwhelmed the Eagles in quarters three and four. Peyton Manning was unstoppable, as was the entire Denver offense that rolled to 472 yards even as Manning sat out the fourth quarter. A blocked punt led to Denver's second touchdown on special teams – Trindon Holliday returned a kickoff 105 yards in the first half – and the Eagles offense just could not get vertical and keep pace with the Broncos.
So, if Denver is the best in the NFL – and nobody doubts that they are in the conversation – then the Eagles have a lot of ground to make up in many departments.
The Eagles committed 8 penalties, while Denver had just a pair. Denver converted all five of its red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, and the Eagles were just 2 of 5 inside the Denver 20-yard line. The special teams decision went convincingly to the Broncos.
"We have to get a lot better everywhere," said tight end Brent Celek, who had a critical drop in the red zone on a third down in the first quarter. "It's not just one thing. It's everything. You sit here 1-3 and it's not a good feeling. We have to keep fighting. We've got a lot of season ahead of us, but we need wins now."
Tracing back to a turning point, it may have come late in the first half with Denver ahead, 21-13. On first and 10 from the Denver 41-yard line, quarterback Michael Vick threw complete to DeSean Jackson for 19 yards to the 22-yard line. The Eagles were in business, driving, ready to close in.
But wait. Evan Mathis was called for holding – he tackled defensive tackle Terrance Knighton – and the big gain was called back. Instead of a first and 10 at the Broncos 19, the Eagles had a first and 20 at the Philadelphia 49-yard line. They were able to advance to the Denver 37-yard line, and instead of attempting a field goal from there – it would have been about 55 yards – head coach Chip Kelly allowed the play clock to wind down for a delay of game penalty.
The decision ended up not costing the Eagles any points in that sequence as the Broncos failed to capitalize, but the lack of points there – and earlier when the offense had the football in Denver territory -- haunted the Eagles throughout the game.
"That was a difference maker," said Vick. "If that drive could have resulted in some points, we've got a close game. They got the ball at the start of the second half and went straight down and scored. That gives their defense the opportunity to pin their ears back and blitz and come after us, so it kind of changed the whole dynamic of the game."
Two early opportunities in the red zone resulted in Alex Henery field goals, not touchdowns. On the first trip inside the Denver 20-yard line, a wide-open Brent Celek dropped a pass that would have kept a drive going. On the next drive, a Lane Johnson holding penalty stunted a drive and Henry again came on for a field goal.
Field goals don't work against Manning and the best offense in the NFL.
It was ugly in the second half. Manning was 15 of 16 for 158 yards and 3 touchdowns in the third quarter. Denver blocked a Donnie Jones punt. Henery missed a 46-yard field goal, his third miss of the season.
Want a silver lining? Dallas and the New York Giants lost on Sunday, and the 1-3 Eagles are just a single game out of the top spot in the struggling NFC East. But that really doesn't matter. What matters is that the Eagles regroup, restore some pride, and beat New York at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
"We've got to stay together. That's what Coach told us after the game," said cornerback Cary Williams. "Stay together and keep fighting and we're going to get this straightened out.
There are a lot of areas that need to improve. The Eagles must score touchdowns and not settle for field goals. They are killing themselves with penalties and mistakes on drives. The defense has to find a way to get some momentum, challenge at the line of scrimmage and force some takeaways. And for the second game in a row, the special teams were victimized in Denver, and this time it cost the Eagles 14 big points.
"I think our mistakes are correctable, so we need to start correcting them," said center Jason Kelce. "We were in the game and then it just got away from us. That can happen very quickly in this league."
Nobody is going to panic, but the understanding that everybody needs to improve is very real. The Eagles went out against the NFL's best and tried to mix things up defensively against Manning, to no avail. The offensive approach to run the football – the Eagles are a run-first team, if that hasn't hit home yet – kept the game close, but the failure to score touchdowns in the red zone stymied any chances for a huge road victory.
Instead, the Eagles find themselves at 1-3 with an NFC East game staring at them on Sunday. This isn't a must-win game in the mathematical sense, but it's an extremely important game for the psyche of a young team with a new head coach.
"It's up to every individual to look at himself and turn this around," said wide receiver Jason Avant. "We're 1-3. That's reality. We have 12 games to go. Nobody is going to quit. We're going to keep playing hard and trying to make things happen."
Answers? We'll see how the Eagles can turn those field goals into touchdowns, and how they can get some stops on defense, and how they can win the special teams battle. This is a league of corrections, and as the Eagles build the foundation for the Kelly Era, this team needs to fix some things, a lot of things, to get back to winning football games.