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January 02, 2022

Final observations: Eagles 20, Washington Football Team 16

The Birds are one step closer to a playoff berth following a win on the road in Washington.

The Eagles' defense buckled down in the second half, giving Jalen Hurts and the offense an opportunity to deliver a 20-16 win, pulling the Eagles within arm's reach of a playoff berth.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Hurts wasn't perfect, but he probably had some of his best individual plays of the season on Sunday against Washington, rising to meet the moment with the Eagles getting closer and closer to a playoff berth. Rarely have we seen him blend his rushing ability with his passing skills this well, and it helped keep the Eagles alive in spite of their defense struggling for a lot of the afternoon.

In the first half against Washington, Hurts had at least two electric plays as a runner, using quick jukes and sidesteps to leave defenders in his wake as he moved downfield. But those plays did not come at the cost of looking downfield — Hurts got good protection upfront for a lot of Sunday's game, and he made sure to take advantage of it, hanging in the pocket long enough for opportunities to open up downfield. That pocket presence would carry over into the second half, leading to this highlight-reel play, where Hurts bought time with his legs and then fired a strike to Greg Ward, picking up a critical first down and bringing the Eagles closer to six points:

There have certainly been times this year where Hurts has simply turned the corner and ignored any opportunities that were there downfield, choosing to pick up the easy yards on the ground instead. A play like this, while not a total outlier this season, does give you a bit of confidence that he's growing as a passer, learning how to make the most of his skill set with more time at the helm.

The offense would sputter in the red zone following that completion, with several run plays getting stonewalled by Washington around the goal line. But they pulled it out of the fire on fourth down, with a pitch to Boston Scott getting the Eagles ever so close to Washington on the scoreboard:

A quick sidebar on Philadelphia's diminutive running back — Scott is not without his weaknesses, but there's a reason he's been able to stick around on this team as they've shuffled through other backfield players during his tenure. He's versatile and makes things happen when he gets opportunities, many of those coming late in the year when they need playmakers to step up in big moments. They looked like they were going to be drawing dead running the ball after a miserable first half, but Scott did just enough to salvage their day on the ground.

A better defensive effort from the Eagles would have allowed Hurts' day to take center stage on Sunday, but as it is, he still deserves credit for putting together a fairly complete performance. 

• Josh Sweat had himself a nice afternoon in Washington, perhaps one of his best days in the pros since putting on an Eagles uniform. Despite the Eagles struggling to get interior pressure for a lot of Sunday's game, Sweat found ways to disrupt Washington in the backfield, putting the fear of good in Taylor Heinecke whenever he turned the corner. On top of picking up 1.5 sacks, Sweat was able to bat down a pass and get involved in run defense, making some nice stops around the line of scrimmage.

He was not the only defensive player to have a big day in Washington. Genard Avery's interception in the first half was wiped out by an illegal contact penalty, but he would come up with a big play later in the game to make up for it, sacking Heinecke on a huge third-down play late in the third quarter. Avery has been a punchline in Philadelphia for a long time, one of many moves cited by the fanbase in the case against Howie Roseman, but he has been noticably better and more impactful over the past month or so.

For a while, this game looked like it was going to follow a script we saw when the Eagles were sputtering early in the season, with the defense sitting back in soft coverage to get picked apart for the entire afternoon. But they were a completely different team in the second half, perhaps because the offense controlled the ball for long stretches of time, keeping the D well rested and ready to rip when they were called into action. After a clock-eating drive to open the half from the offense, the defense looked snappier and more in tune with the gameplan, converging on ballcarriers and pass-catchers before they could gain much steam.

• After Avonte Maddox was whistled for an iffy pass interference penalty early in a fourth-quarter drive for Washington, there were quite a few people around the Delaware Valley who started to sweat. Were the Eagles on the verge of blowing this golden opportunity one small mistake at a time? Luckily, that was not the case, and Maddox was a big reason for that. The Eagles tightened up later in the drive, sniffing out a Washington screen for a loss on first down, and when Washington decided to go for it on a critical fourth-and-five, Maddox broke on the ensuing pass and batted it down, getting Philadelphia off of the field:

There have been a lot of games lately where it was the offense bouncing back from a tough start in order to pick up a win. This time, the offense bought the defensive group enough time to find themselves, and once both units were in full bloom in the second half, the Eagles finally looked like the team we've come to know over the last few months. And even when it got hairy on Washington's final drive of the game, they came up with the big play when it counted, with Rodney McLeod hauling in an interception to put this game to rest with 24 seconds to go:

Not the prettiest win, but they will take it, and with a little bit of help, they could be in the playoffs after this weekend is over.

• It was not their best day of the season, with the run game struggling to get going for about 2.5 quarters of this game, but the offensive line showed once again why they are at the center of all good things this team does. Sunday's game featured some of their best pass protection of the season, giving Hurts all the time he needed to have a productive Sunday in D.C. And when it was time to put this game away, the big boys up front certainly did their best to bury the opponent, opening up lanes for their running backs as Washington wore down physically in the fourth quarter.

Not that I need to explain this to most of you, but this is why you stick with the run throughout the game, even when (and perhaps especially when) there are early struggles that challenge your ability to have a run-first mentality. Hang in there long enough, and you'll be up against some tired bodies in the trenches.

• Watching Dallas Goedert signal the first down after barreling through a kicking net and rolling over a trainer's table was A+. Once he emerged from that sideline chaos unscathed, it quickly became one of the funniest Eagles moments of the season for me. Nothing like a little slapstick comedy.

The Bad

• With the Eagles unable to control the game on the ground until late, coaching decisions were pulled into the spotlight more than they normally are. There were some plays on the margins that reflected poorly on Sirianni, and those are the sort of moments that will come under the microscope if he ends up coaching them in the playoffs.

The most obvious place to start was his decision to call timeout with 35 seconds left in the first half, Washington facing a third-and-short and the Eagles hoping to get the ball back to potentially score before halftime. But that possibility was remote at the time of the decision, and it looked like an even more curious move when they gave up the first down and eventually allowed Washington to get in range for a half-closing field goal.

There will be more questions about playcalling this week than we've seen in a while, though I'm not sure I can get down with those. The Eagles had the odd successful run play here or there, but Washington did a good job of keeping them under wraps overall, and the passing game was effective enough that they didn't need to just sledgehammer Washington over and over again for minimal gain. Jordan Howard looked slower than he has all season, so it was tough to build a thunder and lightning attack with him and Scott that would actually work to the Eagles' advantage.

If you want to hammer him for anything, the Eagles really feel like they should have emphasized DeVonta Smith even more on Sunday, with the Alabama product surprisingly uninvolved as the Eagles moved into the lead in the second half. Rather than wasting gadget plays and big-play opportunities on Jalen Reagor, they could try to feature one of their top weapons. Or maybe I'm the crazy one.

• I say this having written a lot of praise for Hurts up top — he still left plenty of meat on the bone as a thrower, and you can see limitations he has as a passer within the good games the same as within bad games. There was a miss when Smith broke open in the endzone in the first half, an underthrown pass to a streaking Quez Watkins midway through the third quarter, and other plays where Hurts missed open players and was forced to take shorter gains as a result. The risk he took on third down around the two-minute warning was also a bit more dangerous than I can personally tolerate in that spot, though the real problem is that the play went toward Reagor of all people.

Small complaints, but complaints all the same. 

• I ask once again — why was Ryan Kerrigan getting snaps during important plays and possessions throughout this game? He has been terrible all year, and he did nothing once again on Sunday.

• Reagor is a speed guy who never gets open downfield, can't make plays when they give it to him out of the backfield, and can't turn the corner when he's returning punts. His lone big play in special teams this season came when he was able to burst through a hole in the middle of the field, rather than a showcase of the speed he was supposed to have when they drafted him. You'd be hard-pressed to tell me what this guy does well, and it gets tiring writing that every week.

The Ugly

• It's hard to comment on officiating when the broadcast is committed to ignoring the handful of plays where flags are called. Bad job by the Fox crew to highlight what was going on with the officials on Sunday, though it appeared many Eagles fans were not happy with how this one was reffed (not that it's anything new).

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