The Eagles consolidated their recent gains by knocking off division-leading Green Bay, 27-13. It was a solid win (and their first against a team with a winning record). Nick Foles did not have another Hall-of-Fame-type of game. He started with some tentative play that brought back grim memories of his terrible showing against Dallas, but he steadied himself in the second half, ending with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a tightening grip on the starting quarterback position in Mike Vick’s absence.
Foles will never have Vick’s running ability, but continues to run well enough to keep the defense honest. He picked up a key late-game first down on a 9-yard read-option keeper, for example. That play was the cherry on top of a glorious 9 minute, 32 second 4th-quarter drive by the Eagles that was still only at the Packers’ 21 when time ran out. The Eagles lead the NFL in speed of touchdown drives by a mile (just a minute and 48 seconds, almost 45 seconds faster than the 2nd-place Bills) so it’s great to see them able to shift gears into ‘super-slow’ mode to ice a game.
On the other side of the scrimmage line, the defense has quietly become pretty decent, especially against the run. They shut down running back Eddie Lacy, who has been having a great year, and held their opponent below 22 points, for the sixth game in a row. The only other team that has done that is undefeated Kansas City. Better yet, the heart of the defense is a front line that is even stronger after trading away nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, and doesn’t have a single player older than 25. The D’s best moment came when Vinny Curry got a helmet-yanking sack and then gave the referee a tender hug; Jimmy Kempski suggested he make that ref hug his signature sack dance.
There is an asterisk on this win, though, because the Packers’ great quarterback Aaron Rodgers was out injured. How lucky was that for Philadelphia? Consider this: Rodgers had not missed a full game since he was named starting quarterback in 2008. 2008!!! Considering that Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time career leader in passer rating, and was MVP of the Super Bowl he won, that’s a pretty big asterisk. On the other hand, Rodgers doesn’t play defense, and the Eagles scored 27 against one of the league’s better squads.
The injuries didn’t stop there, though, for either team. Green Bay’s backup QB, journeyman Seneca Wallace, was injured not long into the game. That actually seemed to work in Green Bay’s favor, though. While Wallace is widely considered a stiff, and looked it before he pulled a groin muscle, 3rd-string QB Scott Tolzein — signed off the practice squad earlier in the week — played well and finished with 280 yards and a touchdown, against two interceptions. He showed a strong arm and lots of poise, especially for a guy playing his first regular season game after three years hanging around the bottom of various rosters.
The Eagles also got some lucky breaks, none luckier than DeSean Jackson’s 55-yard touchdown catch (the first of Nick Foles’ three scoring tosses). Jackson beat his man and a safety deep on a post route, but Foles’ throw, perhaps hindered by a cold headwind, was closer to the defenders than Jackson. They bumped each other and the ball popped up; DeSean calmly plucked it out of the air and slow-walked backwards into the end zone as the two backs crumpled to the turf. That play could have been either of TWO interceptions, but looked like another Foles masterstroke on paper.
Foles’ other two touchdowns were thrown to Riley Cooper, who is suddenly one of the NFL’s best No. 2 wide receivers. The odd thing is that Michael Vick targeted Cooper frequently, even to a fault in my opinion, but somehow Foles is finding Cooper open where Vick couldn’t. Foles is going to be very hard for Mike Vick to dislodge as starting quarterback when the veteran returns from injury; the tall second-year QB has 16 TDs and no interceptions this year, the second-best season start in NFL history (Peyton Manning set the record this year by throwing 20 touchdowns before he had an INT).
Coopers’ first touchdown catch was an odd one. Riley was in between the corner back covering him and a safety, but Foles threw a high, looping ball on the other side of the safety. He claims that this was deliberate, that he knew Cooper was a baseball player (drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, in fact) and could track a pop fly. Believe him or not, that’s exactly what happened. The second TD was more conventional, with Cooper throwing down a nasty double move to shed his cornerback, Foles hitting him perfectly in stride.
The most impressive thing about this victory was how Philadelphia handled its own rash of injuries. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher was out before the game started (along with starting QB Vick and WR Jeremy Maclin), and three more Eagle starters joined them; left tackle Jason Peters, safety Earl Wolff, and linebacker Mychal Kendricks. NFL rosters don’t allow teams to carry many subs, but Chip Kelly had the perfect answers with Roc Carmichael at CB, Allan Barbre at tackle, Patrick Chung at safety and Najee Goode at linebacker. Each stepped up seamlessly; Barbre was seen on one play blocking a safety 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles are now tied for first in the (admittedly crummy) NFC East with Dallas, who was killed by New Orleans. They play Washington on Sunday and then have their bye week to heal up. This season has had some real low points, but the Eagles are emerging as a real playoff contender, with Foles at the helm, a stiffening defense and a highly efficient offense that leads the league in explosion plays (both on the ground and in the air).
Despite having all his coaches wear mod Star Trek-looking sweatshirts, Coach Kelly was not flashing any futuristic offense or defensive trickery. His team won with a lot of solid, fundamental football, the spotty talent and his radical revamping of the team, notwithstanding. This might be the best evidence that, despite taking a lot of criticism this year, Chip might be a genius after all.
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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