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October 21, 2018

Final observations: Panthers 21, Eagles 17

Just when you thought the Eagles had turned the corner back toward their 2017-18 selves, their worst demons came back to haunt them in the fourth quarter against Carolina. A massive collapse allowed the Panthers to complete their biggest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history, and the Eagles head into their London trip following a crushing, inexplicable 21-17 loss at home.

There was a ton of good in this game through three quarters. Unfortunately for the Eagles, you still have to play the fourth one to get a win. 

The Good

• I don't know if Fletcher Cox is going to put up the raw numbers to get consideration for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. What I do know is that he has been on top of his game all season, setting the tone for Philadelphia's defense in spite of playing a heavier snap count than everybody else on the defensive line.

It's not just his pressure of the quarterback that pops. Cox's speed and athleticism — and frankly his motor — shows up play after play, week after week. When you see him chase down a player like Christian McCaffery at the second level, small and shifty as he is, it really highlights how unique a talent Cox is.

You never see him quit on plays, even when the ballcarrier or receiver has gotten past his level of the defense. Even if he never said a word, Cox would be a great leader just based on the example he sets. And with the amount of attention thrown his way up front, guys like Michael Bennett, Derek Barnett, and so forth all benefit just from him being on the field.

• You're finally starting to see what Carson Wentz can do with strong protection up front. In a first half that only fell short on the points front, Wentz had the highest passer rating he's ever had in the first half of a game, and delivered strong, accurate throws all over the field.

Even when things weren't clean, Wentz found a way to make some excellent, potential game-changing plays. After Corey Clement put the ball on the turf midway through the third quarter, it was the quarterback of all people who spotted the ball and dove on top of it, sustaining an Eagles drive with nothing more than a little bravery. On the very next play, Wentz stared down pressure and delivered an off-balance throw for a first down over the middle.

With a fuller complement of weapons around him and the offensive line keeping him upright, we're seeing a quarterback that is closer to MVP-level Wentz every week. Unfortunately, that guy did not show up when the game was on the line.

• Alshon Jeffery made the flashier plays in the first half, but Zach Ertz's consistent work over the middle was just as important to Philadelphia's ability to move the ball. With a big afternoon at the Linc, Ertz moved into fifth-place all time on the Eagles' reception list, and you figure he's probably not done attacking the Eagles' record books. He could be their all-time leading receiver within the next few years.

Ertz is just about everything you can ask for at the position, and the fear teams have for him in that middle area of the field specifically empowers guys on the outside. On Jeffery's first-half touchdown, lining up Ertz on the right side of Wentz drew safety Eric Reid's attention before the ball was even snapped, and created one-on-one matchups for guys like Jeffery on the other side of the line. Even when he's not the designed target, the respect teams pay him benefits the offense.

With Dallas Goedert slowly coming along each week, this offense is only going to get tougher to stop in the weeks and years to come, assuming health. Ertz always finds a way to get himself open, and he certainly has the attention of his franchise QB when he does so.

• Speaking of Goedert, how about the rookie getting on the board on Sunday?

There were questions about Philadelphia's use of their tight ends early in the season, but it seems hard to argue with the coaching staff's development plan at this moment. Goedert is becoming more involved on offense as the season winds on, and he is a tough, tough cover in the red zone for opposing teams. Have to imagine Wentz is happy to have another guy with size and speed to look for when things get tight.

And by the way, this sequence was only possible because Doug Pederson once again opted to go for it on fourth and short. It was a pretty obvious decision to either play for a touchdown or pin Carolina back against the goal line, but plenty of NFL coaches botch this stuff all the time. Pederson hasn't been perfect this year, but the Eagles are constant beneficiaries of his attacking mindset.

The Bad

• If there's any bone to pick with the Eagles on a day when they were great for the first three quarters, it's that the defense took their foot off the gas when the game looked to be out of reach in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia's defensive line got minimal pressure, coverage was dropped too far back, and the Panthers carved them like a Thanksgiving turkey for the final 15 minutes of the game.

Many will zoom in on this as a defensive failure, but this is a product of the play on both sides of the ball. The Eagles had numerous opportunities to put this game away or at least pad the lead more, and they never quite got over the hump. Long touchdown drives were paired with quick, fruitless possessions, and the latter allowed Carolina to hang around despite having no business doing so.

That doesn't excuse how the game was approached by Jim Schwartz's unit in the fourth quarter. Beyond the passiveness, they made outright mistakes that led to Carolina's touchdowns. Ronald Darby bit hard on an initial move on the outside — the last thing you want to do when you're in more of a prevent-style defense at the end of games — and the Panthers waltzed in for an easy touchdown as a result.

The killer instinct the Eagles showed last year has not been present most of this season. The Panthers should have been dead and buried, and instead, the fourth quarter turned into a real competition instead of a celebration. That's a collective failure that is shared between every player on the team.

• I'm not sure how you get beat by Torrey Smith on fourth and 10, let alone get beat by him on a play that isn't a deep route. Nothing like making things overly dramatic.

By the same token, how do you let Greg Olson — Carolina's only real red-zone target and arguably their top receiving threat — go completely uncovered in the end zone on the decisive play of the game? Schwartz is going to take a beating for his unit's finish to this football game, and he will absolutely deserve it. Giving up 21 points in the final quarter of the game is just unacceptable.

• Even though Wentz's throw was ruled an incompletion on the late play from Eric Reid, what a horrendous throw from Wentz to cap off what was otherwise a great day for the quarterback. Inexcusable in that situation, and lucky to have not been punished.

He made another critical mistake later on the same possession, when he went over the middle to Alshon Jeffery on third down. Wendell Smallwood appeared to be wide open in the flat, and the result was a brutal loss for Philadelphia when they couldn't come up with anything on fourth down.

Wentz is the undisputed franchise quarterback, and failure breeds proggress. But that title comes with expectations, and he had to be better to close out the game.

• Not to overstate the importance of any one game when the Eagles still play in a terrible division, but this is a potential season-altering loss. The Birds have now coughed away two games they absolutely should have won against the Titans and Panthers — neither of whom are anything resembling elite — and there's little reason to believe it's suddenly going to change moving forward.

Without being alarmist, we're starting to see trends develop and weaknesses on this year's team get hammered every week. They aren't putting enough points on the board, the defense is prone to moments of extreme weakness, and they just haven't proven capable of finishing games. Outside of their Giants win, the other wins they've come up with this season came in dramatic fashion.

To dominate a game in time of possession like the Eagles did and still not put it away is pathetic.

The Ugly

• Did you see that Panthers offense in the first three quarters of the game?

Apply that same statement to everything the Eagles did in the fourth quarter. Good grief.

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