Cary Williams was called for a horsecollar tackle on the kickoff following the go-ahead score for the Eagles. This helped jumpstart the Saints game-winning drive in the 26-24 Eagles loss on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com)
Let me start by saying this. The Philadelphia Eagles did not play well in Saturday’s Wildcard game. Not well at all, certainly not well enough to win.
It is precisely the reason that on this Sunday afternoon, this hurts. The Eagles were in the game the whole way. And up until the very end, they could have won the game. Instead, the New Orleans Saints helped hand Philadelphia another round of retrospect.
One of the reasons this loss hurts is because the well-oiled machine that the offense appeared to be didn’t succeed as well as expected. That was at fault to no one.
Nick Foles didn’t have options. LeSean McCoy was contained. Until the injury to Keenan Lewis, DeSean Jackson and the rest of the receivers were covered. The Saints defense played an excellent game.
But the Eagles should have won this game. Three plays, very easy to identify, stood as reasons for why they didn’t.
The first came early in the second quarter. Technically, it is a series of three plays. But for all intents and purposes, it is the final play of that series that will define the game.
The Eagles had reached the Saints 15-yard line, ready to strike for the game’s first score. Foles then tried a screen pass to Brent Celek – loss of eight. Foles then couldn’t find anyone open and took a sack for a loss of 11. McCoy gained four yards on the 3rd and 29 play.
That set up a 46-yard field goal attempt for Alex Henery. He missed it wide left.
Henery has been a liability at kicker this season, not because of his numbers, but due to the lack of trust between kicker and coach. He made 23-of-28 field goals this season. But clearly there is a reason Chip Kelly feels he can’t always rely on Henery in key situations.
Foles screen pass and sack cost the Eagles valuable yardage, but Henery has to make those kicks. This is also not the last we’ll see of Henery in these three key plays.
The second play happened late in the third quarter with the Eagles down 13-7. On 3rd and 4 from the Eagles 30, Foles dropped back to pass and had Riley Cooper cutting across the middle. He was wide open and called for the pass.
What should have resulted in an easy completion for a first down and plenty more – at least 20 yards – was dropped by Cooper, forcing another punt. The Saints scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Finally, with the Eagles comeback attempt complete, leading by a point, the defense needed a crucial stop. Special teams made things difficult on them right away.
Another area where Henery has struggled is kickoffs. This kickoff went two yards deep in the end zone. As Darren Sproles returned the kick for good yardage, Cary Williams simply focused on bringing him down by any means necessary. His horsecollar tackle added 15 yards to the 39-yard return, putting the Saints in Eagles territory before the offense had returned to the field.
Needing only about 15-20 yards to reach field goal range, it was no question the Saints were in position to win. That play will certainly define why the Eagles weren’t able to make the effective stop at the end, because they had their work cut out for them on a special teams lapse.
Were these three plays the only reason the Eagles lost? No. There were many flaws in the game.
But the fact that the Eagles played a mistake-filled game and still were leading right down to the final moments says a lot about what the team is capable of when they adjust to things on both sides of the ball and click.
The positives of where this team could be in another year or two are fully evident. It just wasn’t going to do it on a night when experience and fundamentals really paid off.