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December 25, 2017

First half observations: Eagles 7, Raiders 7

Eagles NFL

The No. 1 overall seed in the NFC is within reach, but the Eagles did not come close to locking it up in their first half of Christmas football. A sluggish offensive performance and some disturbing defensive trends have them locked in a battle with the mediocre Raiders, and they enter halftime even at seven. 

The Good

• If you spend your average Sunday screaming at Doug Pederson to run the ball, boy did you have few complaints to make during the first half. The Eagles beat Oakland like an old set of drums early in the game, perhaps giving you a preview of how they'll play as the temperatures begin to drop.

The Eagles had just under 50 yards rushing on their first two drives alone, spearheaded by Jay Ajayi. It looks like Doug Pederson is beginning to concede more control to the midseason acquisition, and the results look beautiful so far. Yet it was a pass play, and not a run, that brought Philadelphia its first touchdown of the evening.

Ajayi is getting going at the best possible time, and if the Eagles are going to win playoff games, they need to control the clock and minimize mistakes. The easiest way to do that is to give their bell cow the ball and let him go to work.

These plays are all made possible by the big men in the trenches. Eagles fans are hoping their guys won't be available to play in the Pro Bowl, but as Jon Gruden highlighted on the broadcast, it's an absolute crime that Jason Kelce wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl. He has been consistently excellent for the Eagles all season, and his work in space has been a driving force behind the success of the running back committee. What a shift that is from last season, when his place in the long-term picture seemed uncertain.

And by the way, this is the exact gameplan you'd want to see Pederson turn to in order to account for the drop-off from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles. Getting the run game going early sets up play-action and other wrinkles in the Philadelphia playbook, making the game easy for the backup. That's good coaching, and it's how you account for the loss of one of the most dynamic quarterback talents in the NFL.

The Bad

• Allowing Oakland to pick up most of the yards it needed on third-and-14 was bad enough. Burning a timeout because of substitution issues prior to the ensuing fourth-down play was even worse.

The Raiders didn't end up punishing the Eagles for their lack of mental sharpness heading into fourth down, but plays around the margins like these hurt a lot more when you're playing good teams. There won't be any Oakland-caliber teams left to take advantage of when the Eagles host a home playoff game in a few weeks, and burning a timeout five minutes into a game for a silly reason is inexcusable.

• If he wasn't playing against a secondary with the worst collective set of hands in the league — they entered the game with just four interceptions — Foles would have thrown a pick-six in the second quarter. Reggie Nelson read Foles all the way on a third-down throw, and a set of stone hands was Foles' only saving grace.

Foles' more, well, deliberate style of play was noticeable against Oakland. He did well when he was able to just dump off short screens and slants to his targets, but on any play that took some time to develop, it was as if you could actually visualize the wheels turning in his head. He completed just a single pass to his wideouts in the half. Total. 

But the biggest difference with Foles so far is not necessarily how he and the offense are producing but in the preparation part of the equation. Wentz was consistently getting the Eagles up to the line of scrimmage and assessing things from there, whereas it seems like Foles is bleeding down the play clock in the huddle. That's not a small thing, and Wentz's urgency allowed the Eagles to switch between tempos rather easily.

Maybe that doesn't end up being a fatal flaw, but it's not ideal. If you don't have time to get a look at your opponent, there aren't opportunities to change the play and use the other team's tape against them.

• The Eagles got killed last week by an endless series of slant routes from the New York Giants. Those plays eventually set up double moves from New York's receivers, and they had Philadelphia's secondary guessing on what felt like every other throw.

Oakland appeared to have watched the tape from that game. On a scoring drive midway through the second quarter, Amari Cooper torched Jalen Mills and went streaking for a long touchdown.

Frankly, it's not going to matter who is playing quarterback if the Eagles can't defend against the pass. There is an obvious, glaring problem in their secondary, and teams are beginning to exploit it on a weekly basis. That's not what you want to see this late in the season. Even when the Eagles got respite in the form of Oakland penalties, they were giving up big plays on the throws that were called back. Not a lot of good signs to be had.

The Ugly

• Every ham-fisted inclusion of the typical "Philadelphia threw snowballs at Santa" story that never seems to die. It's old, it's annoying, and it'll apparently never go away. Garbage.

• Philadelphia's offense did a good enough job of getting into position for a field goal with time running down in the second quarter. Jake Elliott missing a 33-yard attempt to take the lead was a major buzzkill, and will not inspire much confidence heading into must-win games in the playoffs. Can anything start trending in the right direction?