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December 10, 2017

First half observations: Eagles 24, Rams 14

Eagles NFL

In a pivotal game for the right to home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, the Eagles somehow overcame yet another slow start to grab a halftime lead on the road. Thirty minutes stand between the Eagles and a Vise-Grip on the No. 1 seed in the NFC, as they head into halftime with a 24-14 lead.

The Good

• Philadelphia's first scoring drive of the day was all about Brent Celek. After some power running from Jay Ajayi and a couple nice throws from Carson Wentz, the quarterback looked to Celek in the end zone. It probably would have been a touchdown if not for a pass interference penalty taken by LA, and the Eagles got the ball on the one-yard line with a chance to punch it in.

A Lane Johnson false start on second down wiped a Wentz sneak touchdown off the board, but on the very next play, he found the wily veteran for six points.

Celek certainly doesn't have Zach Ertz's athleticism or pass-catching prowess, but he's as reliable as they come. Having him step up in Ertz's absence is the epitome of the "next man up" mentality that has carried Philadelphia through a boatload of tough injuries.

He wasn't the only tight end to get involved in the first half. Unlike Celek, Trey Burton does bring some of the same pass-catching dynamism as Ertz, and Wentz floated a beauty into the backup TE to put Philadelphia into the lead for the first time.

Burton has been huge in games Ertz has missed this season, and he hauled in a second touchdown to put the Eagles up 21-7 in the second quarter. A lot of the credit belongs to the QB, of course. Wentz came up with three touchdowns in the first half alone and had the Eagles within yards of scoring another with time running down in the second quarter. Not a bad performance for the possible MVP.

• It was fun to joke about Fox trying to hire Rams fans before the game, but the Philadelphia takeover was very real once the game started. You could hear loud, "DE-FENSE!" chants when the Rams had the ball on offense, and the tranquility that helps offenses fly at home was nowhere to be found.

The Philadelphia fan presence was so great, in fact, that the Rams ended up having to take a timeout late in the first quarter after the play clock nearly ran down on their offense. This is a much different environment than the Eagles faced a week prior, and it makes the biggest game left on Philadelphia's schedule just a little bit easier.

• The offensive line deserves some serious kudos for its play in the first half. Part of the reason Wentz was able to get going was that he was consistently working from a clean pocket, and though he had to take a couple big hits to get throws off, on the whole, they gave their quarterback tons of time to operate.

When they didn't the guy behind center showed you why he's one of the frontrunners in the NFL MVP conversation. He pulled a first down out of thin air early in the second quarter, buying just enough time for Alshon Jeffery to get separation beyond the sticks.

It is quite the luxury to have an offensive line playing this well and a talent at QB who can bail them out when they do allow pressure up front.

• Fletcher Cox was an absolute monster in the first half, and he didn't allow Jared Goff to get much of anything going from the pocket. The big-money man at the heart of Philadelphia's defensive front was especially active on third down, forcing several errant Goff throws that put the ball back in Wentz's hands.

It's pretty difficult to string together first downs when the big man is in your face like this.

The Bad

• Starting the game with a turnover is not exactly how the Eagles envisioned this game going. But shades of the old Nelson Agholor reared its ugly head on Philadelphia's first possession, handing the ball to the Rams in Eagles territory.

It would have been nice if the defense could have bailed out the mistake and held the Rams to three points, but it went just as poorly on the other side of the ball. The league's best run defense got gashed on the opening series, giving up 32 yards to Todd Gurley on just two carries.

The slow starts are beginning to wear a little thin. But hey, at least the Eagles made up for it on their second drive.

• The Eagles continue to leave big plays on the field. Mack Hollins has had perhaps the most reliable hands on the team this season, but he will absolutely want this potential touchdown back. 

Hollins' drop came just a couple plays after Wentz missed Jeffery streaking down the sideline, and the Eagles were lucky to come out of that drive with six points given the prior mistakes. A little more consistency would be welcome.

You normally don't have to say the same about the defense, but Philadelphia's other unit coughed up some huge opportunities in the first 30 minutes of football. None loom larger than a dropped potential interception by Nigel Bradham, which could have snuffed out a Rams red-zone opportunity and been returned a fair distance down the field.

Instead, LA scored on a third-down throw by Jared Goff, and what could have been a chance to kill the game on the next drive was gone just like that. You can't leave these plays on the table and expect good teams to gift them right back.

The Ugly

•  I would like a serious explanation from Doug Pederson on why Jay Ajayi is not getting more carries than LeGarrette Blount. The midseason pickup is considerably more dynamic than Blount, and the gap was especially pronounced in the first half of Sunday's game, with Ajayi cutting LA's front seven to ribbons.

His counterpart, on the other hand, couldn't get much of anything going in the first two quarters. And yet Pederson kept going to him, including on a third-and-20 screen play that doesn't make any sense at all. If you're going to use that play call and just try to pick up what you can, why would you use the slowest running back you have in the mix?

Pederson has generally done more good than bad for this team, but the use of the running back committee has been suspect. When Ajayi has 49 yards on just four carries, you don't have to overthink it. Give him the damn ball until the Rams prove they can stop him.

• Along those same lines, Chance Warmack was randomly inserted into the mix in the second quarter, and the Eagles almost immediately gave up a sack on his side of the line. There was no official word on a Stefan Wisniewski injury, which is really the only justifiable explanation for messing with the line's chemistry in the middle of a game. If it's not broke don't fix it.

Feel free to ignore this if Wiz is revealed to have picked up a knock. But even with injury concerns attached, Warmack stands out as particularly useless when he's asked to fill in.

•  This is one of the worst spots I've ever seen an official make.

No further analysis necessary. That Philadelphia had to use a challenge to overturn the play is a disgrace in and of itself.