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January 13, 2019

Final observations: Saints 20, Eagles 14

Eagles NFL

The Eagles came out of the gates on fire, and looked to be on their way to the NFC Championship game after a great first quarter. But 45 minutes of football later, the Saints proved they were the better team, and New Orleans marches on after beating the Eagles 20-14.

Here's what I saw in the loss that ends Philadelphia's season.

The Good

• He was only in a position to make the play because Drew Brees under-threw Taysom Hill on a deep route. But Avonte Maddox made a heck of a play to get his fingers on a ball that otherwise would have gone for a long touchdown.

That ended up being a pivotal play because after New Orleans was pushed back temporarily by a penalty, the drive ended up killing a ton of time. It's obviously not great to have the defense out there for long stretches of time getting fatigued (or the offense getting cold on the sideline), but they bent and took a long time to break.

None of that is possible if Maddox doesn't come up with that play. It's frustrating to watch Drew Brees carve up the secondary over an extended period of time, but the Eagles are not going to keep up in an up-tempo shootout with this Saints team.

• If Fletcher Cox was healthy for this game, we may be talking about a different outcome. He was absolutely unbelievable when he was on the field, bum rushing New Orleans up the middle and forcing the Saints into uncomfortable situations.

But that was sort of the problem. The lower body injury he picked up on punt coverage in the first half had him in and out of the lineup, and it took one of Philadelphia's strengths away at the worst possible time. 

• Given everything that happened this season, I think you can call this a pretty successful title defense from the first Super Bowl winner in franchise history. They had every reason to lay down and count themselves out after losing to the Cowboys in Dallas, but they responded in a way that only a champion is able to.

There are a bunch of guys who deserve credit for that. Doug Pederson and Nick Foles are at the top of the list, but bit players like Cre'Von LeBlanc and the emergent Avonte Maddox were part of the defensive turnaround late in the season. It took the whole roster to pull this team out of the fire, and they ended up giving the best team in the NFC quite a fight in their final game of the year.

Even late in the fourth quarter with injuries all throughout the roster, the Eagles fought on defense. They came up with a huge tackle in the backfield in the game's closing minutes, and that earned them a field goal miss on the next play. Philadelphia had the ball and a chance to win the game with three minutes left. And it's because not a single guy on that roster gave in.

This all says one big thing to me — the Eagles are going to be a problem for opponents as long as Pederson is the head coach. They kept up with the Saints because they came ready to play from the opening whistle, not because these teams are necessarily equal on the field this year. There will be some ups and downs, but I think this season strengthened Pederson's resume, even if it doesn't have the luster of a Super Bowl victory.

The Eagles should be proud of how they fought this year, end of discussion.

The Bad

• You can't waste a timeout in the first minute of the second half to avoid a delay of game. Take the five-yard penalty and do your best to overcome it on the ensuing plays.

Taking the timeout there hurts if you need to stop the clock late in the game, but on top of that, it puts additional risk on any potential challenge you want to make. Lose the challenge, and you're down to one timeout for the entire second half. Live to fight another day.

(Maybe we're not talking about this as much if the obvious pass interference was called on third down, with Alshon Jeffery being held all the way down the sideline. So it goes.)

• With everything I said up top about the bend don't break strategy, I still did not like the schematic approach to the second half. Jim Schwartz had the secondary sitting back in zone coverage out of the halftime tunnel, and it appeared to be to Philadelphia's detriment. The Saints just missed on several long touchdown opportunities, but even with those big misses, they got carved up by the Saints.

While some of that can be attributed to Philadelphia's health, I don't think that was the proper response to the first half. With press man coverage working for most of the first half, I thought the Eagles needed to lean on it more with the season on the line. If you get beat by a talented Saints group, okay. But New Orleans picked up a bunch of long, cheap third downs that shouldn't have been attainable.

Third downs were especially problematic for the Eagles. They forced the Saints into a lot of long third downs, which should have been to their benefit. It only ended up making the inevitable conversions hurt more.

Honestly, I don't know how much more you could have asked from them anyway. They got hit with a ton of impactful injuries and were already thin to begin with. In that respect, their fight was admirable. Talent just won out in the end.

• That being said, I'm going to have nightmares about Michael Thomas for weeks. How the Eagles let him get free on third down after third down is beyond me.

• Crowd noise might honestly be the story of that game, right next to injuries. With the crowd quieted early by a couple big plays, the Eagles were able to march up and down the field with ease. Once the Saints grabbed hold of a sliver of momentum, the Superdome was rocking, and it totally screwed up Philadelphia's offense.

Self-inflicted penalties were taken across the offensive line, with the aforementioned timeout, and with several plays where it looked like Philly wideouts were unsure of where they were supposed to be and when. Credit to the crowd in New Orleans for rising to the occasion, but the Eagles should have been a bit better prepared for this. They knew exactly what the Superdome is like, and that the playoffs are another monster entirely.

• The Eagles would not have had a chance in the world in the playoffs if not for Foles' brilliance down the stretch. But this was not his best game, and it's a bummer that his (likely) final Eagles game will be this one, marred by a bunch of near misses.

Foles started out on fire, aided by a great play-calling mix from the sideline. But things started to go off the rails in the second quarter, and he never really righted the ship. There were several huge plays that he just misfired on, under-throwing players down the sideline that could have hauled in huge receptions. The miss to Nelson Agholor — which probably just needed a half second more of patience — was a good summary of the day. Philadelphia had chances and just didn't hit on them.

It's hard to kill Foles for that, given everything he did to get Philadelphia here in the first place. His legacy in this city is ironclad, and struggling in that environment is understandable. But the Eagles needed elite Foles to keep up with the Saints for four quarters, and he was a mixed bag. 14 points was never going to get it done.

• In fairness to Foles, things appeared to finally be moving in the right direction in the game's final minutes. And Alshon Jeffery, who has come up with big catch after big catch over the last two years, had it go right off his hands, killing off the game.

It just wasn't meant to be. Some will question why the Eagles rushed to get a play off before the two-minute warning there, but I'm less concerned with that. They saw a look they liked, Jeffery was wide open, and they just didn't execute on the play. They didn't have it, and sometimes the result of a game is that simple.

(I want to put this out there, by the way — Jeffery gutted it out through a major injury to help the Eagles win a Super Bowl last year. I'm all for criticizing him for the mistake today, but that guy has put himself on the line for his teammates, the franchise, and the city. Make sure you remember that before going after him for what will probably go down as the biggest lowlight of his career.)

The Ugly

• Officials let members of the secondary clutch-and-grab pretty much all game. So their selective enforcement of defensive holding, particularly on the penalty Rasul Douglas picked up early in the second half. Douglas drew a flag for minimal contact that was inconsequential, but the officials saw fit to bail out a stagnant start to the drive from New Orleans anyway.

Do you want to call it tight? Fine. Show me some consistency, then. There was none in New Orleans.

• Too many injuries to even list here without being excessive. Health was a huge factor in this game, and the Eagles still fought until the end. This group has a ton of pride, and they should be commended for it.

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