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December 25, 2017

Final observations: Eagles 19, Raiders 10

Eagles NFL

A night that should have been a celebration left Eagles fans yelping out in pain for most of their Christmas evenings. But in the end, the Eagles did just enough to get it done, winning a 19-10 slugfest on the strength of a spectacular second half from their defense.

The Good

• Patrick Robinson may not be the MVP of the defense, but he always seems to come up with a big play when the Eagles need it most. Down 10-7 and with the game slipping away, Robinson came up with an interception of Raiders QB Derek Carr, altering the field position and breathing new life into the Eagles.

The defense was the only real reason Philadelphia was able to hang in the game against Oakland, as it minimized the damage despite being put on the field early and often throughout the game. It was a flip of the script from recent weeks, in which a high-scoring offense had to bail out rough performances from their counterparts.

Even then, the defense was far from perfect. They continue to wear down at the point of attack, and the run defense that powered their strong start is no longer the dominant unit it once was. Still, they came up with a huge takeaway after Eagles running back Jay Ajayi put the ball on the turf, giving the offense a chance to tie the game up in the third quarter.

That wouldn't be the last time they bailed out offensive ineptitude. They caused another fumble after Foles turned the ball over in the fourth quarter, providing the offense with another chance to turn things around that they predictably squandered. And just when things looked their bleakest, with the Raiders near midfield and just over a minute left, Ronald Darby made one of the most important plays of the season.

If the Eagles are going to give up more yardage than they did to start the season — and that's basically inevitable with wear-and-tear on top of your opponents having extra film — you have to be opportunistic. The defense kept the scoring to a minimum and came up with five big takeaways (one of which came on the final play of the game). There's not much more you can ask them to do than that. If the offense can't get it done with a performance like that from the other side of the ball, they don't have any right to complain.

• Long live Jake Elliott. The rookie kicker made up for his gaffe in the first half, booting through a clutch kick to give the Eagles the most important win of the season.

With the win, the Eagles have officially clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, guaranteeing home-field advantage for as long as they last in the playoffs. If another NFC team wants to go to the Super Bowl, all roads will go through Philadelphia. That's not necessarily all that imposing after watching the offense shoot itself in the foot for 60 straight minutes, but hey, the fans are going to be juiced up. Maybe a reinvigorated defense and a rowdy Lincoln Financial Field will be enough to inch them over the line.

Even if you don't believe this team can get it done in the postseason, this is a tremendous accomplishment for a group no one expected to be this good when predictions went around in the offseason. A win is a win is a win, and no matter how ugly this game was, it earned them the best possible playoff path forward. 

The Bad

• After Fletcher Cox took a holding penalty early in the third quarter, Jon Gruden described the game with an apt two-word summary: "Philadelphia, struggling." Things did not get a whole lot better from there.

The easiest reflex in this situation is to point the finger at the quarterback position, and that's fair to an extent. Nick Foles was not good against Oakland, missing important throws, slowing the offense's tempo down, and struggling to perform the simple task of getting the ball in the hands of his receivers.

Philadelphia's problems went far beyond the guy behind center, however. The Eagles played undisciplined football from the opening whistle, beating themselves with costly mistakes whenever they came up with a momentum-shifting play. Lane Johnson had three holding penalties called on him in less than three quarters of play, erasing first downs off the board with sloppy blocking. And he's supposed to be one of the team's strongest links.

For a team that had absolutely everything to play for — and against a team whose season was basically over — it was an inexcusable performance from the Eagles. They had a shot to lock up the No. 1 overall seed and make a statement about how tough it will be to come into Lincoln Financial Field in January. Instead of making teams fear them on their home turf, the Eagles showed they are plenty beatable, and there is now plenty of tape on how to exploit their weaknesses.

• Let's talk specifically about Foles for a minute. The case for him being able to hold down the fort is simple: he can help you play ball-control offense, and as long as the other phases of the game get the job done, he's a serviceable option behind Carson Wentz.

Monday night was a shining example of why that's just about all you can probably rely on him for. Oakland has one of the league's worst secondaries and provided a perfect next step toward building some momentum. But when things aren't perfect around him, Foles has a major problem adjusting to any sort of curveballs being thrown at him. He doesn't improvise pre-snap, he can't improvise if he's flushed in the pocket, and he doesn't exactly have the arm talent to make up for either of those problems.

Confidence in the guys around him was justified a couple weeks ago. This Eagles squad had earned the benefit of the doubt with their play for most of the season, and it seemed possible they could keep Foles in a position where his flaws were minimized. After two full weeks in the mini-Foles era, however, there's more evidence to the contrary. Their third-down dominance has gone up in smoke with a new man under center.

And look, he's a backup quarterback for a reason. If he wasn't slow with his reads, or if he consistently hit receivers in stride, he'd have a more realistic shot at starting somewhere. It's not his fault the MVP of the league tore his ACL and forced him into having to play. But this is the reality for the Eagles now. They have an inconsistent backup leading the squad, and it's really hard to win playoff games if that's what you're working with on offense.

With good quarterback play, this game is over an hour before it ended on the clock. It shouldn't be this difficult or this close when your defense steps up like Philadelphia's did on Monday night.

The Ugly

• But enough about Nick Foles' performance. *ba dum tsssss*

• What in the name of Santa Claus was Chris Long thinking on this play?

There's no guarantee Long makes a play on the ball even if he's alert there, but come on, man. I'm all for having a good time and celebrating after you make a play, but you have to finish the play first. Forcing a fourth down was obviously very nice, but a fumble recovery and good field position is much better.