ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Doug Pederson wasn't looking for any deception. He wanted power. He wanted the Eagles to run the football holding an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter, and that's exactly what the offense did for 8 minutes, 17 seconds into a gusty wind at Buffalo's New Era Field in a 31-13 needed-to-have-it victory. The Eagles played power football with running back Jordan Howard carrying much of the load, with quarterback Carson Wentz running for two first downs, and with a short passing game that devoured the clock.
The Eagles challenged the teeth of the Buffalo defense and won, using tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert as blockers, bringing in lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai as an extra blocker, mixing in Ertz and Goedert in the passing game – Goedert had a 7-yard gain for a first down and Ertz converted a third-and-7 play with an 18-yard gain to the Buffalo 3-yard line, setting up Howard for a touchdown run that put the game out of reach with 6:12 remaining. The score capped a 14-play, 83-yard drive that was telling for the players on the field.
"It was great because we knew we had them at that point," said Howard, who rushed for 96 yards on 23 carries, part of a 41-carry, 218-yard ground game that helped the Eagles control the football for 35:57. "They couldn't get us off the field and we kept converting. We kept driving and had great momentum. Everything was working."
Here we are now at the midway point of the regular season and the Eagles are 4-4, hopefully having turned their season in the right direction for good with a game on Sunday against Chicago followed by a bye week. The Eagles went 1-2 on the three-game road trip. It wasn't pretty in losses at Minnesota and Dallas. The week leading up to the Buffalo kickoff was downright outrageous with everything that happened off the field. But the team banded together and played one of its best 60-minute games of the season in the win over a 5-1 Bills team.
"It's a step in the right direction for those guys to step up and take ownership," said Pederson, who called the fourth-quarter drive that put the game away the best of the season. "They went out and they owned it today. I think it's a great step forward for our leaders and our football team. Being a leader is not about being perfect. Everybody makes mistakes, but they owned it and they stepped up and really led today."
They did it mostly by running the heck out of the football on offense, and by taking over the line of scrimmage on defense, led by Brandon Graham's forced fumble that he recovered, a sack, and two tackles for loss; Fletcher Cox's 1.5 sacks and strong play against the run; and by not allowing Buffalo's vertical passing game to gain any traction. The Eagles had two takeaways – both on quarterback Josh Allen fumbles – and did a good job using three players who were on practice squads a week ago – Bruce Hector, Albert Huggins, and Anthony Rush – to mix in with Cox at defensive tackle. Malcolm Jenkins was excellent in coverage against tight end Tyler Croft, Ronald Darby returned to the starting lineup and was sticky in coverage down the field, and the Eagles tackled extremely well on a day when the winds gusted up to 50 miles per hour and the intermittent rain was more of a disturbance than it appeared on television.
"It was pretty nasty out there," said Goedert, who caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Wentz late in the second quarter to give the Eagles a lead they would not relinquish. "We knew we had to run the ball. We had to commit to it, and we did that and controlled the line of scrimmage."
The game turned around late in the second quarter when Graham made a huge defensive play. Buffalo led at that point, 7-3, in an ugly, back-and-forth slogfest in the terrible weather. On a third-and-2 play from the Buffalo 28-yard line on the first play after the two-minute warning, Graham penetrated the backfield and got to Allen, running a quarterback power to the right side of Buffalo's offensive formation. Graham punched the football loose and recovered it at the Bills' 24-yard line and gave the Eagles some life.
Sanders gained 6 yards on a first-down run and then another 3 on second down. On third-and-1, Wentz sneaked for 2 yards and a first down. A Wentz run to the left side picked up another 8 yards to the Buffalo 5-yard line and on the next play, second-and-2, Wentz threw to a wide-open Goedert in the end zone and the Eagles had a 9-7 lead. Sanders took a pitch from Wentz to convert the two-point conversion, and the Eagles led 11-7 at the half.
On the first possession of the second half, Sanders struck for a big play – one the Eagles installed just this week – in the running game. Following a perfect lead block from Howard, Sanders hit a hole in the middle and then cut to the left sideline and raced, untouched, for a 65-yard touchdown sprint. He celebrated his first NFL rushing score by leaping into a group of Eagles in the stands – and there were thousands of Eagles fans who made the trip, thank you – and spending a moment with them.
"Jordan made a perfect block and I followed him. It was wide open. I didn't feel anybody around me and no way was I gonna get caught heading for the end zone," said Sanders, who rushed for 74 yards on three carries and added 44 yards on three receptions, including a 25-yard catch-and-run screen play to set up a Jake Elliott field goal before leaving the game with a shoulder injury in the third quarter. "It was just an exciting time for me. The play popped and it was wide open for me."
The Howard/Sanders combination – Thunder and Lightning, if you will – has been a work in progress all season. It's worked really well, like it did in Green Bay in that thrilling Thursday night win and as it did on Sunday when the two combined for 26 carries, 170 yards, and two touchdowns, and it's been a struggle at other times. The Eagles hope the ground game has turned the corner for good.
"We had been practicing the play (Sanders touchdown) through the week against different looks and when the play was called, I didn't know how the linebacker would attack," Howard said. "When I got up to him (Matt Milano) he was hesitant, so I just tried to block him before Miles got to me."
It worked, and now the Eagles have more confidence in a two-back system moving forward.
"It was working pretty well," Howard said, in an understatement. "I try to wear the defense down and when he gets in the game, he has game-breaking speed and he can take it all the way, so it worked out pretty well for us today."
After a tumultuous week following the loss at Dallas, the Eagles tuned out the noise and the weather and their third straight road game to capture an enormous victory. They knew it. They knew how much it meant to get to 4-4.
"We're even now, but we have a lot more work to do," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "We ran the ball, we threw it and made some big plays, and we stayed on the field. We finished our drives. Our defense had some big stops and took the ball away. Special teams did the job in tough conditions. It was that kind of day, that kind of win. We needed it, that's for sure. We need to keep it going. We have a lot of football left to play."