SEATTLE—Chris Long looked like he’d just seen a ghost. This was about an hour after Russell Wilson had made that crazy play, the one where he broke free from the pocket, and five yards past the line of scrimmage pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders bore down on him. Long had the first, and best chance, to stop Wilson. He dove at Wilson right as he hit the crease in the middle of the pocket … and Long’s arms came up empty.
“He caught me off guard,” Long said, his soft voice barely audible over the noise from the nearby showers.
“I certainly had a shot at him,” Long continued, “but he had stepped up a little quicker than we anticipated. That’s him, though. He sees an opening like that, and he’s going to take off.”
The Eagles’ pursuit of Wilson was representative of their overall performance in a 24-10 loss to the Seahawks: They thought they knew what was coming, but they came up empty.
All week long the message from the coaching staff was that against a good team like the Seahawks, they couldn’t make the same mistakes they’d made against lesser opponents and still win. Coach Doug Pederson’s retort to the media last week, when asked what stood out on film from the Eagles’ 31-3 win against Chicago—“Besides the 11 penalties and the four fumbles?”—was the same message he’d given his team. Playing the Seahawks might not have been expressly talked about in the locker room as a “measuring stick” for the upstart Eagles, but, as center Jason Kelce put it, “it’s just reality.” The team that had the best record in the NFC was coming to play the team that has been the standard in the NFC for the past five years.
The result was that, on a chilly night in the Pacific Northwest, the Eagles faltered when presented with their biggest challenge so far this season—the kind of challenge that a team with Super Bowl aspirations needs to learn to win. Last week Pederson said that being in a dogfight, a game where they trailed by a score or two and had to rally back, would be a great test for his team. The Eagles had only trailed at halftime twice this season before Sunday night; they had been steamrolling opponents, winning each of their previous four games by 23 points or more. But they also have just one win against a team that currently has a winning record (a 28-23 victory against the Panthers in Week 6).
The Eagles are now 10-2, still tied with the Vikings for the best record in the conference and with everything in front of them. But as the dust settled on one of those signature Seahawks December wins Sunday night, and with the Eagles’ matchup with the 9-3 Rams looming next week, the takeaway is that the NFC is wide open. Guard Brandon Brooks called the loss a “wake-up call.” Kelce went a little further, deeming it a “humbling point.” A good humbling point, he said. He didn’t go into specifics, but he noted that practice wasn’t up to snuff last week. Other players said the intensity was lacking Sunday night. Winning has come so easy to the Eagles lately, that perhaps they needed a reminder that it’s anything but.
The Seahawks are not the same team that won Super Bowl XLVIII. Marshawn Lynch isn’t bulldozing opponents on the ground, and two cornerstones of the Legion of Boom, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, are marooned on the sidelines with season-ending injuries. But they have Wilson, the do-it-all offensive engine who’s had a hand in all but one Seahawks offensive touchdown this season, and they have experience winning games in December and January. The Seahawks have won at least one playoff game each of the past five years. The Eagles have been to the postseason once in the past seven seasons.
Wilson, as Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins put it, “carried that team” to a big win when they really needed it. How many quarterbacks could make the play he made on that lateral to convert a third down and keep a Seahawks drive alive right after the Eagles had pulled within one score? Four plays later Wilson tossed a touchdown pass to running back J.D. McKissic to put the Seahawks up by 14 points with a little more than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Just as impressive was the 47-yard throw Wilson made to Doug Baldwin in the third quarter. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialed up a cover-zero blitz on a third-and-10, a call that goes after the quarterback and leaves zero deep defenders. It’s gutsy, but the Eagles have had good success using it selectively this season. According to Jenkins, Wilson changed up the snap count so that he could get a bead on what defensive call Eagles were running before the ball was snapped. Wilson read the blitz, changed the protection and kept the tight end in to block, giving him enough time to make the killer throw.
“Some of those plays, I’m going to be interested to see how Jim Schwartz coaches those,” Jenkins said, “because [Wilson] flat-out just made some phenomenal plays, and it’s hard to defend them out there.”
Wilson was heroic, but the Eagles were also hurt by self-inflicted wounds. The same drive on which Wilson made the throw to Baldwin had been kept alive by two defensive holding calls against Philadelphia; the Seahawks capped that drive with a touchdown on which Jenkins said the Eagles’ defense was misaligned. While going for it on a fourth-and-3 inside Seattle territory, the Eagles left a linebacker totally unblocked (they did not convert). Quarterback Carson Wentz overthrew a wide-open Nelson Agholor on Philadelphia’s first possession of the night. Coming out of the half down just one score, Wentz marched the offense down the field with a masterful up-tempo drive—then lost the ball while diving for the goal line.
The “what ifs” carried over to coaching decisions. Namely: Should Pederson have challenged Wilson’s lateral? Since he was across the line of scrimmage, a forward pass would be illegal. Wilson seemed to throw the pass slightly behind him, though replays showed that the spot where the back caught the ball appeared in front of the line where Wilson released it. It was close, and Pederson had already lost one challenge in the half, so he said he didn’t want to risk losing another timeout. At the same time, overturning that play could have changed the game. That's how narrow the margin was between two good teams.
Consider the Eagles’ own heroics: Brandon Graham almost singlehandedly owning a Seahawks three-and-out. Wentz’s 51-yard throw to Agholor with a defender’s arms wrapped around him. Even better, Wentz’s 27-yard TD pass also to Agholor, while being blitzed, on the run, a throw across his body so unbelievable that it was hard to tell where he was aiming when he launched it.
“We’ve still gotta watch the tape, but it wasn’t like we were by far the worse team out there,” Kelce said. “We were the more undisciplined team … but it’s encouraging that as long as we get that fixed, we can beat a team like this, and we should beat a team like this.”
Moreover: To get to where they want to go, they'll have to beat a team like this.
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