Buoyed by defense, Eagles riding high following second straight victory
The Eagles have allowed 839 yards of offense the past two weeks. But their defense has been the reason they've put together a season-saving, two-game win streak.
Not following? You're forgiven. The Eagles' season—and the NFC East race, in general—has been downright inexplicable at times, and their last two games have furthered the trend.
After a Thanksgiving loss in Detroit, Chip Kelly's club was in shambles, having coughed up 45 points in back-to-back outings and sitting at 4–7. But then the Eagles (with Sam Bradford back in the lineup) stormed into Foxborough and took advantage of a wounded Patriots team, 35–28, before holding off the Bills on Sunday, 23–20.
“Our team is playing together as a team,” said Chip Kelly after their latest win. “We're playing really good team football.”
This sounds almost humorous given the constant questions about Kelly's future this year, and even more so with a Kelly-DeMarco Murray struggle simmering in the background. Reports ahead of the matchup with Buffalo said that Murray had been demoted to fourth-string running back, and even that Kelly might be contemplating making him a healthy scratch.
Though he did not start, Murray played, part of a productive three-headed backfield combo that also included Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. That trio produced 113 yards and a touchdown on the ground, while Sproles also returned a punt 28 yards to help set up what stood as the game-winning field goal.
Sam Bradford threw for 247 yards, highlighted by a 53-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor. His lone interception wasn't his fault, either: Zach Ertz had a potential completion into the red zone ripped out of his hands by Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin.
The performances on that side of the ball had to be encouraging for the Eagles, but still, it was the defense that swung last week's upset of New England and sealed Sunday's hard-fought, critical victory over the Bills. The catalyst in both efforts was defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, who celebrated his 25th birthday Sunday. A Pro Bowl snub last season, Cox has been even better in 2015. And after disrupting the Patriots on many an occasion, he took over up front against the Bills.
“He spends a lot of time in the other teams backfield,” Kelly said. “He's been a very disruptive force for us.”
Ed Reynolds, Cox's teammate in the secondary, iced away their win in Week 14 by getting in front of a Tyrod Taylor deep ball for an interception. Earlier, Reynolds had been just a step late when Taylor hit Sammy Watkins for a 47-yard touchdown on a similar play.
This is how the Eagles survive and thrive on defense; despite their improved play no one will ever call them a great unit. It's going to give up its fair share of home runs—Watkins' bomb, several plays from Robert Woods and LeSean McCoy, a handful of big gains by New England. To compensate for those slip-ups, Philadelphia absolutely must pounce when the opportunities arise, and in this small, two-week window, it has. The Eagles scored two special-teams touchdowns and a defensive touchdown against the Patriots; Reynolds's pick capped a bend-but-don't-break win over the Bills in Week 14.
Is that enough to win the NFC East, with an offense that's after 14 weeks still trying to find the correct formula? Quite possibly. The Eagles (6–7) kept pace with Washington, putting the pressure on the Cowboys and Giants to follow suit. Their closing stretch consists of home games vs. Arizona and Washington, then a Week 17 trip to play the Giants.
Turning this 2–0 run into a 5–0 close might be setting the bar too high, especially with the NFC West-leading Cardinals next up. However, there's suddenly life where there was little—at least enough to have the Eagles thinking they can knock off the Redskins and Giants to wrap the regular season. Do that, and 8–8 should be enough for a division crown.
Granted, this all could swing back the other direction just as easily. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has been under even more heat than Kelly, the fire burning hottest of all after those consecutive humiliating losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit. His job still has to be considered very much in jeopardy, regardless of what his defense pulled off the past two weeks. No one would be all that shocked to see a sudden regression when the Cardinals visit, one that would send the Eagles spiraling into their last two games.
Until then, Philadelphia can take solace in its surprising surge, knowing that it will head to Week 16 with a shot at the division title. The defense, stunning as it is, deserves a great deal of credit for the opportunity.