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January 08, 2023

Final observations: Eagles 22, Giants 16

It wasn't pretty, but the Eagles held on for a 22-16 win over the Giants to clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed in the 2023 playoffs. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I suppose the only noteworthy takeaway from this game is that C.J. Gardner-Johnson looked like a guy capable of tying together the defense on the back end. The Eagles have been forced to play a lot of overextended depth guys in recent weeks, and CJGJ's ability to step into a couple of different roles looms large for Philly, who can move him around the field depending on their needs at the moment.

The question at the moment is what/where exactly he ends up spending most of his time. On a fully healthy team, I suspect you'd stick him at safety for most/all of the game and feel great about it, and he certainly looked like a good partner to Marcus Epps once again. But with Avonte Maddox out indefinitely — potentially done for the year, though we don't have a firm timeline at the moment — Gardner-Johnson's ability to play slot corner in Philadelphia's nickel package is a huge deal. It also helps them get some more reps for Reed Blankenship, who has proven himself a capable role player while filling in for Gardner-Johnson.

(Well, let's maybe wait on Blankenship for a moment, as we'll get to him in the negatives below.)

In any case, Gardner-Johnson was around the ball frequently on Sunday, and his blend of physicality and playmaking is going to be a welcome addition (well, re-addition) to the group down the stretch.

• The Eagles have a running back who kills the Giants, a running back who scored their first touchdown of the day, and they barely used him for the first three-quarters of this game. I'm as flabbergasted as you are, but Boston Scott was great during his limited opportunities. When they really needed to kill the clock late in the game, the Eagles finally, mercifully decided it was time to ride their running backs. And to the shock of absolutely no one, they dominated the Giants on the ground in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. 

Wonder if they could have used the combination of Scott and Kenneth Gainwell at any other point in the game. I guess we'll never know. 

• The Giants pulled out a lot of trickery to try to overcome the talent gap between their backups and Philly's starters, and I am pleased to report the Eagles fell for absolutely none of it. They blew up a fake field goal, recovered a surprise onside kick, and prevented New York from executing a WR pass back. Well done. 

• Jake Elliott is just cash money. 

• Whatever you think about Philadelphia's relatively ho-hum finish to the season, they did what they needed to do in order to lock up the No. 1 seed. It is not a guarantee of anything, as thousands of people will say throughout the week, but it is still an accomplishment worth celebrating for the team, and a feat that puts them in the best possible position to go to the Super Bowl. They will get a bye, they will play all their conference playoff games at home, and the NFC playoffs run through Lincoln Financial Field. It's all you can ask for in the end, and whether they finish the job or not, this has been a tremendous season for the Birds.

Winning a Super Bowl does not mean looking like the best team in the world every single week, as all of us probably should have learned when the Eagles won their only Super Bowl in franchise history with a fairly gruesome end to that regular season, and opened the playoffs with a nail-biting win over the Falcons. What matters is taking care of business, beating whoever comes up on the schedule that week, and moving onto the next opponent. Even when it hasn't looked pretty or inspired dreams of a Lombardi trophy, the Eagles have almost always won. Will that hold up against elite competition in the playoffs? We'll find out soon enough.

• The most important game(s) of the season are still ahead of the Eagles, and Jalen Hurts' performance in the playoffs will weigh much heavier than everything he has done up to this point. Many QBs have put up excellent numbers in the fall only to struggle when the spotlight is brightest in the playoffs, and Hurts will likely enter the playoffs a bit less than 100 percent, even with the bye week to get some extra rest in.

But Hurts took a big enough leap forward this season to basically eliminate any long-term questions about who the guy is in Philadelphia. He played MVP-caliber football all season long, using the additional weaponry the Eagles added to put together an elite season. With consistency in coaching and development done away from the bright lights, Hurts earned the trust of just about everyone, be they fans, coaches, rivals, or the people running the football team. It was just about a perfect blend of running and throwing the football, with Hurts using all of his multi-faceted skills to lead one of the most dynamic Eagles offenses of all time.

I considered myself a Hurts neutral coming into the year, certainly not out on him but wanting to see what he could do with A.J. Brown in the mix. Even with a middling finish to the year, it's a season he should be proud of.

The Bad

• The Eagles are going to need Hurts to look better in the playoffs than he did in this game, full stop. There were some curious decisions in the pocket, plays where Hurts ran himself into pressure for no real reason that I suppose you could chalk up to rust. Philadelphia's biggest failure on Sunday, poor red zone offense, ultimately reflects on the quarterback and the linemen around him, with Hurts struggling to pick apart the Giants once Philly got close to the end zone.

I don't think it's overstating it to say Hurts' third-quarter interception was one of his worst throws/decisions of the year. With the Eagles up 16-0 and basically guaranteed a field goal at worse, there was no reason to force a throw into traffic, even if he didn't realize his team had been flagged on the dropback. At worst, you live to fight another day and throw the ball out of play.

One thing to chew on heading into the playoffs — were the red-zone woes a product of a temporary strategy to protect Hurts' body, or something to fear in the playoffs? Hurts didn't put his body on the line much if at all in this game, which was a perfectly understandable choice for a sleepy season finale. But only time will tell if that was a distinct choice for this specific game or a quirk they have to live with while Hurts is banged up. If his ability/willingness to run the ball is compromised, it will have a sizable impact on their offense, and certainly on their red-zone success.

• Getting Hurts reps before a two-week layoff (and after a stint on the sidelines) is understandable, but Philadelphia's lack of commitment to the run game was staggering in this game. You're dealing with a quarterback who has been out with an injured shoulder, you took all of the designed QB run plays out of the playbook, and you're up against a Giants team with no real incentive to win or try beyond pride. Why not lean on your running backs? There has never been a game with a more obvious incentive to run the football, and yet the Eagles continued to drop back over and over again.

I just don't really get it. It's not like the passing game looked crisp or especially dangerous with all of these opportunities, so you might as well try to find some offensive balance. If you're not going to let Hurts run the ball, and I agree with that part of the decision, at least try to set up some play-action throws by making the Giants think you could run the ball at some point. 

Seriously, the Eagles followed up a 20-yard run for Scott with a slant pass in the fourth quarter. Why? 

• Weirdly bad game for T.J. Edwards, who I thought missed clear-cut opportunities to make game-changing plays. A dropped interception, a missed tackle on fourth down, plays that would have potentially put this game away and earned everyone some second-half rest. Instead, the starters played deep into this one, infuriating most of the people watching this game (including, I'm sure, Philadelphia's front office and coaching staff).

• Reed Blankenship got absolutely bulldozed by Davis Webb on New York's first (and only) touchdown of the day, with Webb running right down main street for six points early in the fourth quarter:

I'm not sure how you look your teammates in the eyes after getting lit up by this dude. Webb was not going to go around you, so this was a great opportunity for Blankenship to load up and take Webb down. Instead, he got put on a poster by a guy who has basically just existed in the NFL prior to Sunday's game. Yikes.

(At least he made the onsides kick recovery to put this game away. Good job, Reed.)

• Darius Slay got put on a poster by Kenny Golladay, and on that play you could maybe just credit the receiver, but I haven't been in love with his play as a general rule lately. He has been burned on deep shots, missed opportunities for takeaways, and been a little too casual as a general rule. Had any of those things changed, he wouldn't have been playing deep into the fourth quarter in Week 18.

The Ugly

• Seriously, how many interceptions did the Eagles just miss during this game? Gotta get back to ball-hawking in the playoffs.

• LMAO at the Giants picking up two consecutive delay of game penalties at the end of the third quarter. Hilarious stuff.

• Brett Kern stinks. Arryn Siposs is no world-beater, but they need to hope he can get right for the playoffs.

• Sure, the Eagles didn't blow anyone away on Sunday, but at least they didn't play as poorly as the Cowboys did.

• Bad kickoff coverage in the final five minutes of the regular season, this really was a game of 2022 Eagles football. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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