PHILADELPHIA -- It’s probably telling and fitting that the best defense Chip Kelly’s fast-break Philadelphia Eagles played on Sunday afternoon came from an offensive lineman. When offensive tackle Jason Peters quickly came to the defense of Nick Foles, just seconds after the Eagles' quarterback had been laid low by a crushing blindside block on an apparent interception, it showed off the formula for how these Eagles keep winning.
They hang around and persevere through first-half deficits until the game breaks their way, and they hang together no matter what. Once Peters proved he had Foles’ back, jumping in to mix it up with Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker after he pulverized Foles, Philly soon found a way to get back in front, and stay there.
What a brawl of a game it was at Lincoln Financial Field, in the heated NFC East opener for Philadelphia and Washington. And when it was over, the Eagles’ gritty 37-34 victory said a lot about how difficult it’s going to be for the rest of the division to dethrone the defending champions. It was a three-hour-and-30 minute pitched battle, and the Eagles were the last men standing.
“It was a fight, you all saw it," said Foles, who didn’t even miss a play after Baker planted him, setting off a furious melee between the rivals on the Washington sideline about five minutes into the fourth quarter. “It was a fight. Literally there were fights during the game. Everybody saw it. It was a hard-fought game. Washington came out fighting and we fought right back. I’m glad we ended up on top. Guys kept fighting until the end."
Down 17-7 in the second quarter, Philly rallied to take a 21-20 halftime lead, then traded punches in the second half with Washington, spoiling the homecoming of ex-Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, who at least got some individual vengeance in the form of five catches for 117 yards and a long touchdown after being released by Philadelphia in late March.
These Eagles never believe they’re out of the game, and to prove it, they just became the first team in NFL history to trail by at least 10 points in its first three games of the season, and still win all three. As they did against Jacksonville and Indianapolis in the previous two weeks, the Eagles finished far better than they started, and stayed resilient despite absorbing a series of body blows during the game.
The Eagles won even after all-world running back LeSean McCoy was forced from the game for a time in the first half, due to concussion symptoms. They won even without center Jason Kelce, when the pivotal veteran was forced from the game with an injury to his abdomen early in the third quarter. And in their most impressive feat, they won even after seeing Peters -- perhaps the league’s best offensive tackle -- thrown out of the game after he fought with Baker, who also was ejected. That development meant the Eagles were playing the rest of the game with their last five active offensive linemen, and were fielding a unit missing four starters, considering they were also missing injured guard Evan Mathis and tackle Allen Barbre.
“Nick Foles is a tough guy, man; he stepped up and the offensive line stepped up, and they gutted it out there at the end," Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “I don’t remember a grittier game I’ve been in, but that one was pretty fun. Sometimes those division games get a little more exciting, but that was a really good one. Just the way it went back and forth, and you knew with every play and every series, the game was on the line in that fourth quarter."
Foles and many of his Eagles teammates didn’t mince words when it came to Baker’s cheap-shot hit. Foles thought he had thrown an interception to Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland on the 1st-and-10 play from the Eagles' 24, and stopped running when he saw Breeland on the ground with the ball. But Breeland had not been touched and got up on his way to an apparent 17-yard return.
Spotting Foles, Baker took a few steps and blasted the unsuspecting quarterback in the ribs, knocking him off his feet and sending him writhing to the ground. Peters immediately rushed up to Baker and shoved him, and the fight was on.
Or as Kelly later put it: “All of a sudden, a hockey game broke out."
It took a while for the officials to restore order, but eventually Breeland’s interception was wiped out via replay review because the ball had hit the ground before he secured it, and Baker and Peters were sent off to the locker rooms.
“That shot [Foles] took on the peel-back [block] was BS," Eagles second-year tight end Zach Ertz said. “Everybody was fired up. It was a BS call for him to get hit like that, but at least he got up. He’s a tough SOB. He’s going to lead this team. But the rules are the rules. The penalty was called for a reason. If a player is going to hit a defenseless quarterback like that, he’s going to get a penalty."
Foles said he never saw Baker, had relaxed because he thought the play was over and considered the hit “dirty."
“He got me pretty good," said Foles, who strafed the Washington defense for 325 yards and three touchdowns, without a turnover. “I thought the guy was down and that’s why I wasn’t looking for anyone. But I love those guys [his offensive linemen]. I’m going to fight for them and they’re going to fight for me, knowing that [Peters] had my back in that situation, where a guy does a dirty play. All those guys kept fighting, and our team was fighting throughout the whole day. I’m really proud of my teammates today."
The Eagles, off to their first 3-0 start since their Super Bowl season of 2004, are finding different ways to get the job done. Last week it was running back Darren Sproles almost single-handedly beating Indianapolis in the receiving game, and this week it was receiver Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews leading the way, combining for 16 catches for 213 yards and three scores. Two of those touchdowns, both from 11 yards out in the second quarter, were the first two of Matthews’ NFL career.
“I know Coach Kelly must be losing some hair," Matthews said of the Eagles’ slow starts. “We’ve got to start putting some more points on the board and executing. But at the same time, we’re doing great."
Even with Washington dominating the Eagles statistically in the first half, Philadelphia’s up-tempo attack proved deadly, scoring 21 points on Matthews’ two grabs and a 102-yard Chris Polk kickoff return touchdown. That’s how the Eagles somehow led 21-20 at the break, despite trailing 22:54 to 7:06 in time of possession, and 18-11 in first downs. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, starting in place of the injured Robert Griffin III, was superb, throwing for a career-best 427 yards and three touchdowns, with just one interception. But it wasn’t enough to stave off another Eagles comeback.
“Against Jacksonville we were down 17-0 [at the half] and we were calm," Ertz said. “Against the Indianapolis Colts we started off slow and everybody was calm. I think it’s a sign that this team is a very calm and resilient team. The leadership that Nick Foles provided after [the fight] was great. I think we were tied up at that point and we ended up winning the game. That’s all that matters."
Despite playing with a sore left shoulder that left him questionable for the game, Jackson did his best to make the Eagles regret releasing him, beating cornerback Cary Williams on an 81-yard scoring bomb that tied the score at 27-27 late in the third quarter. Jackson added a little flutter of his arms in "Fly, Eagles, Fly" style during his end-zone celebration, but it didn’t faze his former teammates. With Matthews drafted in part to pick up the slack of his departure, and Maclin returning this year from a 2013 ACL tear, the Eagles showed they’re still plenty well-stocked with pass catchers. It was Maclin, not Jackson, who got the last laugh, hauling in the go-ahead 27-yard touchdown pass with 7:34 remaining, capping the drive that featured the benches-clearing brawl.
“We just moved on after the fight," Barwin said. “Everybody calmed down, everybody kept their composure and we didn’t let the fight affect us in a negative way. It says a lot about us, how we won this game. How we just keep fighting play after play. We know we will wear people down eventually. We don’t feel anybody can play with us for all 60 minutes."
Nobody has so far. These Eagles definitely aren’t outclassing their opponents. But they are outlasting them. They hang around, and they hang together. And no matter how long it takes, they keep hanging up W’s.