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January 01, 2023

Final observations: Saints 20, Eagles 10

The Eagles falter against a lesser Saints team

The Eagles took another chance to clinch the No. 1 seed and threw it away literally and figuratively, with Gardner Minshew stinking it up in a 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It sure helps to have A.J. Brown on your football team. On Philadelphia's first touchdown of the game, Minshew threw a nice ball down the sideline, but this play is basically all wide-receiver dominance. It's beating your man with the threat of an out route, shrugging him off as he falls down trying to catch back up with you, and then turning on the jets after the catch, leaving the rest of New Orleans' secondary in the dust:

Big-time players can change the course of a game with just a single play, which is why the Eagles paid a hefty price to acquire and keep Brown over the long term. Prior to that catch-and-run, Brown's production for the game was limited to just two catches on slant routes, each short of the sticks for modest gains. In one moment, he was able to flip the game and put pressure on the Saints, whose offense essentially fell apart at halftime.

You could certainly hear the difference that Brown's play made, if not feel it. The moment Brown broke free from his man, it was pandemonium at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles only down by a field goal with an entire quarter of football left to play. The doom and gloom had disappeared, and Philadelphia was ready for its 13-2 football team to wake from slumber.

• The unit that deserves the most credit for pulling this game out of the fire is easily the defensive line. Philadelphia's zone coverage looked like a disaster for most of the first half, with Jonathan Gannon's secondary sitting back and allowing Andy Dalton to get off to a perfect start. Sprinkle in an annoying amount of success for Taysom Hill, and the Eagles looked well on their way to a loss.

In stepped Brandon Graham, who made plays early and kept on coming as the game wore on, adding to his career-high in sacks with another QB takedown early in the fourth quarter:

To reiterate what we said following the first half, Graham's story and season are legitimately inspiring, with a modern Philadelphia sports hero bouncing back from what could have been a career-ending injury. Graham not only managed to make it back into the lineup following an Achilles tear, but he's also finishing up perhaps the best season of his career.

Graham was joined by Haason Reddick and Fletcher Cox in the sacks department, and it sure feels like the latter has bounced back after looking near-washed to open the season. I have to imagine the rotation in the middle of the line has helped to rejuvenate Cox, as he's been surrounded by veteran guys who can give him at least a few extra snaps of rest every week. 

Reddick, on the other hand, has been flat-out dominant after taking a couple of games to get rolling, trailing only Nick Bosa in sacks leaguewide. As good as you thought he might have been when the Eagles signed him in the offseason, he has far exceeded any reasonable expectations you could have had for him. Despite losing Josh Sweat early, the Eagles just continued to roll up front late into this game, with Reddick picking up another big one early in the fourth quarter.

You can discount this as a result of the extra game they have on the schedule, but the Eagles are within striking distance of the all-time, single-season record for sacks by a team. They may catch or surpass the 1984 Bears, which isn't bad company to keep.

The Bad

• You can't pin all the blame on one guy for this uninspired performance, but it's hard to start anywhere other than the quarterback after this game. Minshew was about as bad as it gets, and without the benefits of a sturdy pocket, we watched Minshew run himself into more danger, not once making a play where he made up for any of the breakdowns around him.

Even when Minshew had time to operate, his best chance to make a play came on the gimmie plays, like wide receiver screens or the slant routes to Brown that have been easy money for Philly all year. Everything else was basically a total disaster, with Minshew throwing balls six feet too high or too low depending on the play. And unlike when they had somebody like Donovan McNabb under center, who was prone to a few worm burners himself, Minshew offered none of the upside to pair with that erratic play, his best efforts coming on pedestrian gains that did nothing to change the tenor of this game.

No one that I tend to respect much held this opinion, but anyone who was dumb enough to suggest Jalen Hurts is a mere "system QB" looks like an absolute boob today — moreso than they already did. Maybe the Eagles don't soar to a blowout win with Hurts healthy, but you can picture all of the extra plays Hurts would have made with the same opportunities, the added danger he offers as a designed runner or a threat on broken plays. There's also the big-play potential and his ability/willingness to spread the ball around, making it hard for defenses to key in on a single player.

Minshew's pick-six he threw to effectively end this game was just a textbook example of what not to do as both a quarterback and a play-caller. With an empty backfield, the Saints knew the Eagles had to throw the ball, and Marshon Lattimore read Minshew's eyes the whole way, jumping Brown's route for a walk-in touchdown:

The Eagles' recent struggles with turnovers have been a big part of their downturn in form, and I could make an easy case that even Minshew's turnovers have been worse than Hurts'. At least in Hurts' case, a few of his turnovers have come on downfield attacks, risky-ish throws where you can see the reason he'd take a chance with one of his playmakers covered closely. At least the potential reward is there. But there's no way to justify this car crash of a decision you see above, Minshew's brain melting down as he handed the Saints a W. 

The decision-making was confusing all day long — I know the game was basically over at this point, but why are you throwing an eight-yard pass on fourth-and-22? Who does that make sense to? Take a chance downfield or don't bother.

And of course, he's certainly not the QB sneak threat Hurts is, as if I need to remind you that he can't squat as much as Philadelphia's starting QB. Watching Minshew trying to execute the fourth-and-short sneak was painful, and it gave the ball back to New Orleans with a chance to put the game away late.

• Given that the Eagles will have Hurts available for the playoffs, I don't think there's a ton of reason to panic about the state of the offense. Jack Driscoll at right tackle is a huge concern, and we can only guess how Lane Johnson will look if he is on the field battling through an injury in two or three weeks. Still, the signal-caller should be able to cover up a lot of their issues, using both his arm and his legs to make things happen in a way Minshew can't.

I'm not so sure we can say the same about the defense. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is going to have to come in off of a long layoff and be a difference-maker in the secondary, which is tough to do even for a talented guy. Avonte Maddox seemingly isn't coming back, with the reporting on his injury suggesting he might not be back during their playoff run. Josh Sweat suffered a nasty neck injury in the first half of this game, robbing the Eagles of one of their best pass rushers. Are they going to be able to overcome these absences, or is this the beginning of the end?

It has been hard to argue Jonathan Gannon's results for most of this year, and given that the defensive line has put up record-breaking numbers this season, you're hard-pressed to challenge the overall philosophy. But it has certainly felt like they've been too rigid at times in recent weeks, sitting back in a soft zone when stretches of man coverage and more aggressive blitzing have been justified.

Credit is certainly due to the Eagles for a great second half on defense in this game. If their pass rush is this good, it almost doesn't matter what happens elsewhere on the field, and the Eagles did tighten up the coverage a little bit as time wore on. But if the Eagles wait as long to adjust in playoff games as they did against New Orleans, they could find themselves in too deep of a hole to climb out of.

• To the shock of absolutely no one, the Eagles began to climb back into this game the moment they decided to commit to the run game. When you have a backup quarterback calling the shots, you need to take pressure off of him by picking up yards on early downs and sucking in pressure with well-timed play-action calls.

For some reason, that didn't last long. All you can do is shrug.

• This just does not look like a team ready to go on a run in the playoffs, though we do have to remind ourselves how they looked to end the regular season when they did win the Super Bowl. It would obviously be better if they were blowing teams out and coasting to victories late in the year, but you're going to have to trust the body of work, and certainly in the difference Hurts makes from behind center.

The Ugly

• The holding call on Landon Dickerson that wiped out a Kenneth Gainwell touchdown was an absolute disgrace. You're not going to see many better blocks than the pancake Dickerson dished out, and the officials used what should be an example of A+ blocking to nullify Philadelphia's first score of the day. Horrendous.

Just thinking out loud here — I know they don't review penalties, but if every scoring play is reviewable, plays like these should absolutely fall under that banner. Officials get calls wrong over and over again in this league, and unless it's a pre-snap penalty that blows the play dead, I don't know why this should be different than checking to see whether a guy crossed the goal line or got two feet in bounds during a touchdown catch. There were multiple great angles of what happened, both teams kept playing as they normally would following the penalty, and the officials could have overturned their initial ruling with ease. 

• Three false start penalties on the same drive is a yikes from me, dawg.

• You could probably pick a random guy out of the crowd to throw to and have as much success throwing to them as the Eagles have had with Quez Watkins lately. Great speed and all of that, but he has been horrible at everything else.

• Letting Taysom Hill pick up a first down on a reception is almost worse than losing the game. Not quite that bad, but within range.

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