A season in which the Eagles have been teetering on the brink comes to this indisputable fact: Washington on Saturday night is a must-win game. The playoffs, then, start at 8:30 PM on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
That's got to be the focus for this football team after a down performance in Sunday's prime-time game against Arizona, a 12-2 team that moved the football at will against the Eagles' defense and forced two second-half fumbles to turn a seven-point halftime lead into a 20-point lead after three quarters en route to a convincing 40-17 win over Philadelphia.
It was ugly in just about every way, which will be detailed later. The scenario ahead for the 6-8 Eagles is very simple: They trail Washington (7-7) by one game in the NFC East and must win on Saturday night to keep their playoff hopes alive. Why even discuss after that? The Eagles have to beat Washington, which defeated Buffalo 35-25 on Sunday afternoon, or their postseason hopes go kablooey.
Let's hope that Sunday night's loss was a blip in an otherwise promising December. The Eagles fell apart in the final two quarters after a first-half battle, and they came within inches, literally, of going into halftime with some serious momentum. Quarterback Sam Bradford completed passes to Josh Huff (7 yards), Brent Celek (21 yards) and Zach Ertz (6 yards) to give the Eagles a first down at the Arizona 17-yard line at the two-minute warning of the second quarter. On first down, Bradford completed a pass to Sproles for 5 yards. Then Sproles carried to the left side for 2 yards. On third-and-3, Bradford connected with Ertz for 2 yards, and on fourth down a handoff to Ryan Mathews was stuffed for no gain, and the threat was over.
The Eagles loaded up on the play, using two tight ends and a wide receiver (Riley Cooper) in the power scheme. But Arizona bunched up the line of scrimmage and penetrated the right side of the line, and Mathews tried to bounce outside, to no avail.
The Sunday Night Football showdown against the Cardinals kicked off with the Eagles sporting their #BackInBlack uniforms. View the full gallery here...
Thus, the Eagles trailed 17-10 heading into the third quarter, where it all fell apart. Two fumbles – one by Bradford when he was sacked and one by Mathews – ending promising third-quarter drives, a Bradford pass was intercepted early in the fourth quarter and returned for a touchdown, and the defense couldn't get much of anything going against Arizona, which rolled to 493 total net yards, 28 first downs, converted 8-of-14 third downs and ran for a whopping 230 yards on 39 rushing attempts.
From the start of the third quarter to one play deep in the fourth quarter, the Eagles saw a 17-10 hole deepen to 37-10.
"You can't have those kinds of mistakes against a good football team, or any team," right tackle Lane Johnson said.
The Eagles' defense couldn't put much pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer, rookie running back David Johnson gained 187 rushing yards including a 47-yard scoring run among his three touchdowns, and the Eagles tackled poorly and didn't force a takeaway.
"That was the most disappointing thing, the lack of tackling," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "I don't know where it came from, but it was extremely disappointing. We've fixed it in the past and we're going to fix it for Washington on Saturday."
All the things the Eagles did so well in the two-game winning streak to revive the season – a limit on the opposing offense's explosive (20 or more yards) plays, winning the turnover battle, scoring in the red zone, tackling well, dominating on special teams – melted away on Sunday night.
It didn't help that the Eagles played most of the game without starting cornerbacks Byron Maxwell (shoulder) and Eric Rowe (concussion), who will have their playing status updated later in this very short week. E.J. Biggers and Jaylen Watkins played extended reps on the corner and the Eagles gave plenty of help over the top with the safeties, so Arizona just attacked the underbelly of the defense with a short passing game and a power running game.
"It was pretty bad defensively," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "It wasn't a good performance at all."
The bright spot? Bradford, despite the interception, threw the ball very well for the most part. He was under a lot of pressure from the Arizona pass rush, but Bradford hung in there and fired away. He completed 28-of-41 passes for 361 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
And with a running game that struggled once again – the Eagles ran for 74 yards on 20 carries, with Mathews gaining 58 on 11 carries, 20 yards on a single attempt, and DeMarco Murray a non-factor with 3 yards on two attempts – it's likely that the team's chances of winning the NFC East – and the Eagles are in with two wins, regardless – hinge on Bradford. He needs to carry them. He needs to be the franchise quarterback to save this season.
"We all believe in Sam," wide receiver Jordan Matthews said after catching eight passes for 159 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown. "He was under a lot of pressure and he threw the ball extremely well."
The matter ahead is bouncing back from such a lopsided loss and avenging an early-season defeat in Washington, one that still stings. The Eagles have a quick turnaround, which may be a good thing.
"I think the biggest thing is that you can't let one loss beat you twice," Matthews said. "Sometimes I think short weeks are good because you're able to get that bad taste out of your mouth that much quicker. It would be one thing if we didn't still have life, but we have life. Everything is still right in front of us. A game like this, it's not demoralizing because we really beat ourselves. If we clean up those things, clean up the turnovers, we can go out and get ourselves a good win next week.
"I'm really optimistic. I know the guys are, too."
That's a good start after such a tough loss on national television. A season is on the line, officially. The first must-win moment of the year faces an Eagles team that must recover physically and emotionally.
"It's disappointing to play this way but we have to put it aside and get ready for Washington," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We don't have any other choice. We have to win this game."
So it's the same scenario as last season: Week 16 against Washington in a win-or-no-chance-of-the-playoffs scenario. This time it's at Lincoln Financial Field. Let's see if Bradford, who has improved his game so much in the second half of the season, can carry this Eagles team to the victory.