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November 15, 2022

Final observations: Commanders 32, Eagles 21

The Eagles' perfect season came to an end in primetime, Washington coming in for a Monday Night Football date and leaving with a 32-21 win over the Birds. Given all the unforced errors made by the Eagles, this one will probably eat at them for a bit.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• After Washington spent the majority of the third quarter marching toward the end zone, all hope appeared to be lost for the Eagles, who couldn't stop anyone and looked on the verge of simply giving up. A Super Bowl hero was the guy who had to step in and keep Philadelphia in the game, Brandon Graham sacking Taylor Heinecke to keep the game in manageable territory:

Philadelphia's defensive line got off to a bright start in this game, coming up with a strip sack on the opening possession of the game, but this was one of the only bright spots in the two-plus quarters that transpired after that early takeaway by Josh Sweat. 

• Nobody loves the idea of running the ball more than Eagles fans, and sometimes that can be pushed to the edge of absurdity, but it was hard to argue against their wishes on Monday night. With Washington controlling the clock and the tempo for most of this game, Philadelphia badly needed to do something to seize the momentum in this game. And that started on the ground, where Philadelphia's rushing attack finally got to work during the dying embers of the third quarter.

Nothing fancy, no individual star, just power football spread between a few different guys. It's easy to forget sometimes this year, with Philadelphia's new weapons adding a downtown threat through the air, but this team was absolutely carried by the rushing attack last season, riding Hurts' powerful legs and a diverse supporting cast to a playoff berth. This year, Miles Sanders and Co. have been more of a sideshow, but they have been effective and essential when the Eagles are at their best. No surprise they began to show up as Philadelphia battled in the second half.

The pivotal play of the second half, at least in my mind, was Jalen Hurts' third-down completion to Quez Watkins in the third quarter. If this play fails and the Eagles give the ball back to the Commanders, the game may well have been over by the time the offense got to touch the ball again. Instead, there was new life, and a chance for these guys to get rolling.

That's exactly what they did. And with AJ Brown struggling to get much of anything going on Monday night, it was up to the birthday boy DeVonta Smith to be the featured Batman of the night. 24 years young, Smith found the end zone early in the fourth quarter, and all of a sudden, it felt like the Eagles had a real chance to steal this one back.

• When CJ Gardner-Johnson was whistled for a late hit early in the fourth quarter, it would have been easy to roll your eyes and think it was just going to be one of those nights. An undefeated season was going to go up in smoke, and while you'd have to accept most of the blame yourselves, the Eagles certainly would have felt hard done by that call.

The best way to respond to a penalty, though, is not to focus on the refs or hope a make-up call is coming. The way you continue to march toward immortality is by shaking off somebody else's mistake and waiting for your opportunity to make the next play. That's precisely what Gardner-Johnson did, sitting back on a lofted Heinecke throw to come up with an interception for the fifth-straight game:

Each interception he hauls in is likely to cause his price tag to go up, but each play he makes also makes it impossible to think about letting this guy go next season. Gardner-Johnson has made high-impact plays all season, and this one was particularly special, a takeaway during a defensive performance that was ugly for most of the night.

The Bad

• We don't need to call the Eagles frauds or call for Jonathan Gannon's head because they turned in a disappointing performance against the Commanders. But we do need to pay attention to how the Commanders hurt them, and wonder how or if better teams will exploit what they saw in the future. Discussion of this team has to be centered around how they're going to handle the highest levels of competition, which has been tough as they've played a series of middling-to-bad teams throughout the year.

Do we feel good about Philadelphia's level of physicality on defense? I would say the answer is probably no. They have caused a ton of turnovers, which is to their credit, but Gannon's preferred style is pretty clearly to sit back and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. That'll work in some, if not most instances if you can prevent big plays, but there are going to be times when you need to play aggressor, and the Eagles paid for their passive approach on Monday night.

Fletcher Cox was taking a beating on the field and a beating from the people watching this game above field level, and I won't tell you that he had a particularly strong performance. I am unsure what a good performance would have looked like, though, with Marlon Tuipolotu playing as poorly as he did in the middle of Philadelphia's line. Anybody lining up next to a guy getting blown to pieces on just about every snap is going to struggle because they're facing constant double teams as a result of their partner's ineffectiveness.

It is very difficult to do much of anything on defense when you are getting bullied up front, which is why the top of the draft and the free agent market always revolves around pass rushers and playmakers along the defensive front. The Eagles have often invested in the trenches to a comical degree, ignoring what others feel are positions of need in the hope they can win through their big boys. Those guys gave them almost nothing all night, in spite of the many resources they've used to shore up those spots.

(In fairness, there are health reasons they're lighter up front right now, but still.)

You certainly felt that poor play while watching the Commanders run the ball, but it showed up in the pass attack as well. We can give some credit to Terry McLaurin, who absolutely feasted against whoever he was lined up against on Monday night. He has been a dangerous weapon despite Washington's ever-shifting situation at quarterback, and a good game from Heinecke highlighted exactly how many ways this guy can hurt you. 

That being said, this was a miserable effort from the secondary. At the start of the game, you could pin a lot of their issues on scheme, the Eagles sitting back in soft zone coverage. You might be able to get away with it if your guys are winning up front and pressuring the QB before he can release throws, but that wasn't the case on Monday, so the Eagles got the worst of both worlds.

Add on poor tackling, which has been an underrated problem for the Eagles at times this year, and you get what the Eagles offered on Monday night. Which is to say, not very much. The game started and ended with the defensive performance. 

• I don't think it's worth a ton of time or scrutiny, but not taking the five-yard penalty ended up looming large for the Eagles on Washington's fourth-quarter field goal, which probably doesn't make it if the kick starts another five yards deeper. But the Eagles would have had to get another stop for no gain to preserve that extra five yards, and we're dealing with butterfly effect projecting in that case, so I'm not going to stone Nick Sirianni for choosing to simply get his team off of the field in that spot.

• If the undefeated run was going to come to an end, it was going to take some bad luck, a bad performance, or more likely a combination of both. Nothing summed up the evening quite like Quez Watkins' giveaway late in the fourth quarter, a moment of jubilation immediately turning into agony.

The Eagles were probably due for a dent to the turnover margin, as they have protected the football at a special level basically all season. It makes it hard to even put a grade on the performance of someone like Hurts, whose numbers lagged behind his season averages but who didn't truly have many opportunities to impact this game. Washington's domination of possession derailed Philadelphia's flow, perhaps offering a preview of what it might look like if they have to play from behind in a dogfight with a good team this winter.

(That said, the sack Hurts took on Philadelphia's most important offensive play of the game was an example of some old, bad habits biting them in a big spot. Expect that to come up in some debates this week.)

This is how the perfect season dies — not with a bang, but a whimper. Whether it means anything or just shows how hard it is to run the table will only be figured out over the games and months ahead.

• Come on, even you guys have to admit the last-second Commanders TD was a hilarious way to end this one. A fitting capper.

The Ugly

• Before we get to the complaints about the officials, I'll say the unpopular thing: Brandon Graham deserved a penalty for what he did and Eagles fans would be furious if Hurts took a shot, even a light one, after giving himself up on a play. You can call it soft, or annoying, or horrific, or any adjective you'd like, but it's a stupid play and a horrific penalty from a guy who knows better. They are calling that every time, every game, and 

• I do wonder whether AJ Brown was all there after coming up lame on a play in the first quarter. He was beaten to spots and let opportunities for plays pass him by in this one, and you wonder whether the issue that took him out of the game for a bit was front of mind as he tried to get work done against Washington. Not an excuse, but something to think about.

• Please, for the love of god, let somebody else get a chance returning kicks and punts. I'm not sure they'd be worse if they picked a name out of a hat to take his place. It's hilarious that they could out a cardboard cutout back there and have roughly the same amount of success. 

• Horrific and a costly 15-yard penalty given to Gardner-Johnson early in the fourth quarter. He was penalized for hitting a player who was still in bounds. Brutal.

Here's the thing — the officiating crew managed to top themselves moments later, when the Eagles were in possession and hoping to take the lead following Gardner-Johnson's interception. Dallas Goedert was brought down by his facemask in the open field prior to fumbling the ball, the sort of penalty that is just about impossible to miss in the spot he was in on the field. But because of how the NFL's replay review rules work, that clear and obvious facemask had no impact on whether the officials would overturn the call or not.

There needs to be a common-sense policy applied to replay review. If a turnover is given a mandatory look by the officials, why would you not review all the most critical components of the play, including the illegal contribution that helped force the turnover? Just a silly way to go about the process, and it had huge implications for this game. 

A bad look, to say the least. At least the officials gave the Eagles an obvious make-up call later in the fourth.

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