TAMPA, Fla. – In late regular-season wins over the New York Giants and the Washington Football Team, the Eagles were able to overcome slow starts and early deficits, but it was always a talking point from Head Coach Nick Sirianni and a part of the process Philadelphia needed to improve: To win in the playoffs, especially against the defending Super Bowl Champions, slow starts would not suffice. The Eagles would need a complete game, as perfect a game as they could play, to win on the road in Super Wild Card Weekend.
It didn't happen for the Eagles on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in a 31-15 loss to Tampa Bay. A team that had been resilient all season, one that showed so much growth and maturity coming back from a 2-5 record midway through the season to reach the playoffs, wasn't able to do it against a team like the Bucs. The Eagles fell behind as Tampa Bay took its opening drive 75 yards, using a combination of a short passing game (Tom Brady was 6-for-8 throwing the ball for 36 yards), a running game that produced a 17-yard gain, and a short scoring run, and a suspect roughing-the-quarterback penalty to take a 7-0 lead.
Tampa Bay added a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on its third possession to lead 14-0 after one quarter, and the stat line was every bit as in the Bucs' favor as the scoreboard: Brady was 12-of-16 for 103 yards and the Bucs gained 34 yards on nine rushing attempts, with two touchdowns. The Eagles, meanwhile, were grounded with 10 yards on five runs, while quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 2-of-3 passes for 7 yards.
The Eagles never recovered, and they were unable to get into any kind of rhythm offensively all day. The idea was to control the line of scrimmage and eat the clock and run the football, but Tampa Bay's defense loaded the box and took away that option. The Bucs also blitzed effectively off the edge and the Eagles tried to counter with the screen game, but as Sirianni said afterward, "We weren't good enough against their run blitzes."
Hurts moved the ball for a couple of drives in the second quarter, but one possession ended on downs and another ended when Hurts rolled left and threw for Smith in the end zone, only to see safety Mike Edwards recover in coverage and intercept the ball at the pylon in the end zone, a play on which Hurts said he just got the ball out of his hands later than he wanted.
Tampa Bay led 17-0 at the half and then added to the lead midway through the third quarter as the Bucs pounced on a Jalen Reagor muffed punt at Philadelphia's 48-yard line. Five plays later, Brady threw to tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone to widen the difference.
Philadelphia scored in the second half on a Boston Scott 34-yard touchdown run and a Kenny Gainwell catch-and-run of 16 yards.
There will be a time when the Eagles will look back at this playoff experience and understand the benefits. After the game, however, it just felt painful for a team of players and coaches that rallied midway through the season, reached the playoffs, and arrived in Tampa Bay feeling optimistic about playing a great game.
"We'll grow from this, for sure," linebacker Alex Singleton said after he led the defense with 16 total tackles. "What we accomplished this season and the way we stuck together and turned it around, that's how you build a great team. We'll think about that later. Right now, it's just a feeling of disappointment coming here and not playing our best game when we really needed to do so."
Said Hurts: "We didn't play good enough today. I didn't play good enough today and that's kind of where it is. This game does not define us. This game does not define who we are. We know all the different things that we have overcome, we know the environment that we built as a football team, and as an organization. With the youth that we've had and which I've talked about all year, I know as a football team we'll be back. This is a feeling that will simmer in our hearts, simmer in us all, and with our youth on this football team. We'll definitely come back hungry. Those are my emotions right there. We're not used to this. Nobody is used to this feeling."
The Eagles stepped up in class to play the Bucs and they saw what it takes to win in the postseason. Tampa Bay didn't turn the ball over – the Eagles had those three costly ones – and they controlled the clock, they played at a fevered pitch buoyed by their fans, and they attacked on defense.
A team that had won by having strong ball security and by keeping the offense on the field, a defense that didn't allow big plays and won a lot on third downs, a special teams unit that did a good job in the battle of field position simply made too many mistakes to beat a team of Tampa Bay's caliber.
"We knew that we couldn't make mistakes in the playoffs against a really good football team and we did," Sirianni said. "I don't want to say the moment got too big for them. We just made some mistakes. Coaching, it always starts with me as a coach. There were some coaching mistakes and there were some guys who want some plays back out there. I didn't sense for a moment that the game was too big for them. It was a great atmosphere out there. We just made mistakes today."