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December 17, 2017

Final observations: Eagles 34, Giants 29

Eagles NFL

They did not inspire a lot of confidence with their performance on defense, but Nick Foles' first start of the season went about as well as you could hope. Philadelphia's offense got it done in a nervy 34-29 victory over the Giants, earning a first-round bye and keeping the Eagles in the hunt for the NFC's No. 1 overall seed.

Style points don't get added to the scoreboard, and the Eagles got it done, which is all that matters for now. 

The Good

• The Eagles have consistently beaten opponents through great second-half execution all season, and that can't change even if Carson Wentz is out of the lineup. Against New York, they made a vast improvement on their play to start the game, getting the job done on both sides of the ball.

Philadelphia's first possession of the second half stalled for a field goal, but the Eagles ate up yards and clock and allowed their defense to play with a lead. The guys on the other side of the ball took advantage of the opportunity, forcing the Giants to punt after a three-and-out. 

On their second series of the third quarter, the Eagles got the breakthrough they needed. With his man more interested in pressing him than making a play on the ball, Foles threw a lob up for Nelson Agholor in the end zone, and the resurgent No. 13 made a tremendous play to go up and snag the ball off the back of his defender.

The Eagles have more than enough weaponry on the field to put points on the board, as long as they're given time to make things happen and adjust to what the coaches are seeing. They don't need the defense to be 2000 Ravens or 1985 Bears good, they just need it to play above-average football.

You can consider me a Foles skeptic by-and-large, but he came out on Sunday and did everything you could ask of him as a backup quarterback. He missed on some potential big plays, but he primarily gave his playmakers a chance to make stuff happen, and there were only a few throws you could say he really put in harm's way.

The recipe probably can't remain the same against the better teams around the league, and the Eagles should probably lean a little more on their running back committee. Foles may not get away with some of his double pumps and lack of pocket movement against better defenses.

But those are problems for another day. The offense continues to get results, and it's a testament to the backup QB, the coaching staff, and the skill guys making it happen. Four touchdowns and 237 yards with no turnovers is better than even an optimist could have hoped for.

• Jason Kelce has had one of the best seasons of any member of the offensive line, and he was a major factor in Jay Ajayi getting going in the second half. On Ajayi's first big run in the third quarter, Kelce pulled and absolutely leveled a Giants player to give Ajayi space to work with. The running back took advantage.

Kelce had a few of those massive blocks to spark big plays for the Eagles, and in a year where instability has made life difficult for the offensive line, their center has helped make up for it. That's part of why every member of the running back committee has been able to succeed.

If there's anything that seems puzzling about Philadelphia's work on the offensive side of the ball, it's the use (or lack thereof) of Ajayi. When he has been able to get touches, Ajayi has looked every bit like the player the Eagles were hoping to get when Howie Roseman picked him up at the deadline. Pederson has been reluctant to feature the new guy at times and is still slowly integrating him into the offense.

Today you can chalk it up to having to play catch-up against the Giants, and things got tight when they tried to use him to burn the clock late in the game. But there are more than a few people around the Delaware Valley pining for more Ajayi touches. If he gets offensive-line play like what you saw from Kelce above, it'll be hard to argue against feeding Ajayi the rock.

• You can help erase some middling to bad defensive play if you come up with difference-making plays in big spots. That's what the Eagles did on Sunday, scoring a trio of special teams blocks that may have been the difference between winning and losing.

New York was primed to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, but Malcolm Jenkins got a piece of the attempt and prevented the Giants from jumping back out in front.

It would be nice if they were making these sort of plays more regularly on defense lately, especially in a game where the Giants tore them apart on short slants over the middle. You shouldn't have to come up with several blocks on special teams to beat one of the worst teams in football.

Maybe that's minimizing what they did, however. They came up with some big defensive plays prior to the fourth-quarter block, including a massive sack from Brandon Graham that temporarily pulled New York out of field-goal range.

The Eagles have to do a better job of stringing plays like these together on defense. It was part of what earned them the best record in the NFL to begin with, and it will win playoff games if they can do it in January. Easier said than done, however.

The Bad

• The offense keeping pace with prior results is great. It's not going to matter if the Eagles don't clean up the issues they've been having on defense for the last month.

Big plays have suddenly become easier and easier to pile up against Philadelphia. New York scored their second long touchdown of the game on a slant to Tavarres King in the third quarter, and poor tackling throughout the secondary makes that possible.

Keep in mind this is against Eli Manning, who at this stage of his career is the very opposite of a big-play quarterback. They're potentially going to face some much stiffer competition in the playoffs, dealing with the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and so on. Maybe they get lucky with a matchup against Case Keenum and the Vikings — though there are a ton of potential pitfalls for the Eagles in that game — but if you want to get to the ultimate game, you're going to have to beat some really good offenses.

Playing the way they are right now, this defense isn't equipped to stop the NFC's elite, let alone win a Super Bowl. The Giants don't put points on the board, and they don't hurt you with big plays with Odell Beckham Jr. out of the lineup. Philadelphia let them do both.

It takes a gargantuan effort from Foles and the offense to offset what they're getting from the guys on the other side of the ball at the moment. They have better performances in them, but we haven't seen one in a while, and there shouldn't be blind faith concerning their ability to get back on the right track.

• Knowing how the defense was playing, I'm not sure it was the right call to kick a field goal deep in Giants territory late in the game. Pederson has typically been very gung-ho about pressing his luck and trusting the offense, but he settled for a five-point lead instead of trying to punch it in on fourth-and-goal from the two with about four minutes left in the game.

This is a much harder decision than most of his calls to go for it on fourth-and-one, and the impulse is understandable. I wouldn't even say the decision is necessarily in the "bad" category, but we don't have "The Neutral" here at PhillyVoice. I do think you have to trust the unit that is playing well over the one that is not, though, and that arrow is clearly pointing at the Philadelphia offense.

They didn't get burned on this one, but this was a test of the logical limit of "Big Balls Doug," at the very least. The Giants marched right down the field on their ensuing possession, and if not for some ineptitude from the Giants — they ran the ball on third-and-goal when their quarterback had thrown for over 450 yards against Philadelphia's defense — they might have paid for it.

But hey, devil's advocate is that if you didn't punch it in, New York probably moves into field goal range against that same poor defense and you lose on a late field goal.

The Ugly

• The injury that took Eagles corner Patrick Robinson out of the game was brutal, and watching him lay motionless on the turf after he suffered it was yet another reminder of the human toll of football.

What was so scary about the Robinson play is there wasn't even a huge hit that caused it. He was kicked inadvertently by a hurdling Giants runner, and then he collided with a teammate on his way to the turf. It's not the sort of play you can prevent with any rules changes.

It made matters worse that corner Rasul Douglas was inactive when the Eagles needed another guy to fill in during Robinson's absence. Malcolm Jenkins was forced to play a lot of slot corner, which he's capable of, but it's not ideal.

• There was a fist fight and a major skirmish during New York's pivotal crunch-time drive, but you never would have known it based on the response to the sequence. There was barely any conference between the officials, and Fox even hilariously cut away from the fracas for a game break, showing a GB-CAR highlight while players scrapped on the field.

At the end of it all, not a single flag was thrown and the Giants carried on as if nothing had happened, unleashing their hurry-up offense in an effort to score a winning touchdown. It was a confounding, ridiculous sequence all around, and even if it would have ended up on the negative side of the ledger for the Eagles, how do you let that go by without some serious discussion between the officials? I'm all for letting them play, but good grief.