JERSEY CITY, N.J. – To reach this moment, only hours before kickoff of a regular-season finale that means everything for the Philadelphia Eagles, the road navigated was filled with potholes and traffic jams – and this is not to reference the two-hour, seven-bus, police-escorted trip up the New Jersey Turnpike on Saturday to reach the team hotel – and strange turns and here we are: A regular-season finale with an NFC East title a victory (or a tie!) away.
As the team unpacked from the buses on Saturday and checked into the hotel, I asked the radio broadcast team of Merrill Reese and Mike Quick to describe, in one word, the 2019 season to date.
"Survival," Reese said.
"Unpredictable," Quick said.
Both are correct, of course.
It is not a surprise in the least that the Eagles are playing for a division title on Sunday against the Giants. Heck, didn't we all think this team had a chance to be something special after the way the Eagles loaded the roster in the spring and summer, seemingly having an answer for every position. DeSean Jackson was the perfect fit for a wide receiver corps needing speed and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside would provide depth for a wide receiver corps that had it all and work on his game for the future.
Jordan Howard was a great answer at running back, and on the cheap, too – a late-round 2020 draft pick sent to Chicago for a player who had been as productive and durable as any running back in the league the last three seasons. Trading up to draft left tackle Andre Dillard was a brilliant stroke for a team that had to, just had to, start weaning away from the GOAT, Jason Peters. And signing veteran quarterback Josh McCown during the preseason? A cherry on top for an offense that would, no doubt, be loaded and versatile and explosive and, geez, it seemed like there was no way defenses would match up successfully against the Eagles.
On defense, the Eagles brought in veteran Malik Jackson, a productive and durable (his 121 games played led all NFL defensive tackles from 2012-2018) who would be the perfect mate to Fletcher Cox. For good measure, the Eagles brought back Tim Jernigan before the NFL Draft and traded for Hassan Ridgeway late in the draft and expected to have the deepest and most talented set of defensive tackles in the league, ready to collapse pockets from the inside out and give a young and made over defensive end roster some good matchups and frantic quarterbacks.
The cornerbacks were a collection of young and talented players, along with some veterans – Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills – coming back from injury. Veteran Andrew Sendejo signed to add a nice complementary piece to starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins and a healthy Rodney McLeod. At linebacker, yeah, there were questions but the Eagles had Nigel Bradham, signed Zach Brown late in free agency, and talked highly of the depth they saw during Training Camp and eagerly looked forward to seeing the group blossom in the regular season.
Special teams would be great, again, with the kicking operation in place and with Darren Sproles back for one more season to return punts. Second-round draft pick Miles Sanders would help on kickoffs and maybe as a running back working in with Howard.
And then the season started.
And all of those plans went ka-plooey.
"Unpredictable" started when the Eagles ran off the field at halftime of the opener trailing Washington, 20-7. The combination of quarterback Carson Wentz and Jackson made things right and the Eagles came back to win, but still …
"Survival" happened in Week 2 when tight end Dallas Goedert was scratched with a calf injury minutes before kickoff – I remember him walking off the field during pre-game warmups as faces around him raised eyebrows and showed concern – and then 11 plays into the game Jackson limped off the field, to the sidelines with an abdominal injury. The Eagles fell behind in that game, you remember, and then Wentz led them back before his late-game throw on the left sideline to wide receiver Nelson Agholor, a perfect throw, went right through Agholor's hands and even Agholor's circus catch a few plays later on fourth down wasn't enough to get the offense into the end zone.
A week later, the Eagles coughed up the football all game and lost to Detroit and that's when the alarms started to sound. Just a little bit. When would this team wake up?
We waited most of the season. In the meantime, Malik Jackson played only one game and 32 defensive snaps before suffering a year-ending foot injury. DeSean Jackson caught just one pass after the opener against Washington. Agholor played 11 games and caught 39 passes before a knee injury ended his regular season. Alshon Jeffery, who had his contract restructured the day before the opener, played 10 games and caught 43 passes before his season ended due to injury.
Through the course of the season, every single position on the roster – look it up, I did – was impacted by injury. And the Eagles went up and down and then up again to reach 5-4 at the bye week and, for sure, the team would use two consecutive games at home after the bye to start the run, really start the run.
Instead, the Eagles lost two straight games to enter an easy-as-could-be December that featured five games against four teams that were in the process of having horrible seasons – Miami, the Giants twice, Washington, and Dallas. The NFC East was there for the taking. Would the Eagles take it?
Not right away. They blew a 14-point second-half lead in Miami and that's when the alarms really sounded. At 5-7, why did the rest of the season matter, anyway?
Turns out, it meant that Wentz was ready to lead the way starting with a stirring, second-half and overtime comeback to defeat the Giants on Monday Night Football, bring the Eagles back from the brink in the fourth quarter at Washington, and play with tremendous precision and efficiency to beat Dallas last Sunday evening. Three straight wins have vaulted the Eagles into first place in the NFC East with one game to play.
Exactly where the Eagles expected to be.
Only they didn't think they would have reached this point using 13 players promoted during the course of the season from the practice squad, 11 of them from their own practice squad – cornerback Craig James, tight end Alex Ellis, wide receiver Greg Ward, cornerback Ryan Lewis, running back Boston Scott, linebacker Alex Singleton, defensive tackle Bruce Hector, tight end Joshua Perkins, offensive lineman Sua Opeta, and wide receivers Robert Davis and Deontay Burnett and two – defensive tackle Anthony Rush (Oakland) and Albert Huggins (Houston) – from other teams. Ten of those 13 players (Lewis, who is now with Miami, and Ellis and Huggins, who are on the Eagles' practice squad, are the exceptions) remain on the Eagles' 53-man roster.
It doesn't matter how the Eagles reached this point. It hasn't been artistic success, let's agree. Who cares? The Eagles stand one win (or a tie) away from a division title and a trip to the postseason, where anything can happen and usually does.
No question that this has been one of the strangest seasons I've ever seen. Having Wentz raise his game and raise those around him is the biggest takeaway of the year, but the Eagles clearly have so much more in store. Beating the Giants won't be easy, but what has been easy for this team?
All I know is that when the Eagles kick off against New York at MetLife Stadium, the stands are going to be filled with fans who made the trip from Philadelphia or who came from the region to support this football team. That is, in itself, incredibly humbling and appreciated.
One more win, and the Eagles win the NFC East. This has been a journey unlike any other because of all of the crazy injuries – the latest, Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, who won't play – and the inconsistency, but here we are. All together again. Eagles Everywhere. It's taken a village, indeed, to get the Eagles to the brink of a division crown and it's going to take a village to win on Sunday.
Any other way just wouldn't feel right.