They lose when they’re supposed to win, they win when they’re supposed to lose, and good luck figuring out the 2016 Eagles because I haven’t.
The Eagles on Sunday won a game they pretty much had to win, considering how rough their schedule is the next month and a half. They toppled the previously unbeaten Vikings 21-10, improving to 4-2 overall and 3-0 at home, with all three wins coming by double digits (see Instant Replay).
This was huge.
The Eagles won it the way we all knew they had to — with a furious defensive performance, a huge play on special teams, and a play here and there from the offense against a big-time Minnesota defense.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a happy 10 Instant Obervations, so enjoy this one. And maybe read it twice!
1. For me, this game was all about whether the Eagles’ defensive line could return to form after dismal performances in Detroit and Washington and once again perform like the elite unit it claims to be. The answer was a resounding, “Aw, hell yeah.” This was a ferocious defensive performance from a group that was embarrassed the last couple weeks. Brandon Graham continued his brilliant play, Connor Barwin re-emerged after a few ineffective games, Beau Allen aquitted himself very well in place of injured Bennie Logan, and the Eagles’ defensive line took command of this game on a day when its offense couldn’t do a whole lot. Sam Bradford came back to Philly with MVP credentials, but with just a couple exceptions the D-line made sure he had no time to set his feet and find his receivers. They pounded him early and often and forced him to move in the pocket, which is where he’s at his least effective. The Eagles took it as a personal affront that the Vikings’ defense was considered the best in the league, and at least for one Sunday, they played like it was a mantle they deserve.
2. I know how much Jim Schwartz hates blitzing. It’s just not in his nature. He wants the front four to get all the pressure, and the last two weeks, when that wasn’t happening, he didn’t dial up enough blitzes to make Matt Stafford and Kirk Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket. Sunday, he mixed in the perfect number of blitzes, bringing safeties Rodney McLoud and Malcolm Jenkins and linebackers Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham, and the blitzes did a terrific job keeping the Vikings’ front off-balance and keeping Bradford on his back.
3. Speaking of McLeod, this was quite a performance by the veteran safety, who forced a fumble, had his first career sack and also had his career-high third interception of the year. You can make a case for McLeod as the Eagles’ defensive MVP so far. He’s been so solid, and this was his best game yet.
4. Here’s what I love about Carson Wentz. Nothing bothers this kid. Nothing affects him. He’s got an uncanny ability to stay calm and poised when all sorts of chaos is happening around him. Ugly game, turnovers, interceptions, dropped snaps, dropped passes, missed blocks … none of it gets to him. None of it bothers him. That is a rare quality for anybody, much less a 23-year-old quarterback making his sixth NFL start. The Eagles had gone 21 straight possessions without an offensive touchdown going into the third quarter Sunday, and Wentz had thrown three interceptions since the Eagles’ last touchdown. But his ability to shrug all that off and drive the Eagles 77 yards in nine plays for what was essentially the clinching third-quarter touchdown shows poise and composure far beyond his years. Wentz was 3-for-3 for 60 yards on the drive, including a 19-yard gain to Darren Sproles on a broken play with a botched snap. There’s a lot to like about Wentz. His knack for shaking off adversity — for shutting out the noise and just leading the team — is remarkable for anybody. Much less a young QB just starting his career.
5. I was concerned about Ryan Mathews early in the season, but the last two weeks he’s looked very sharp, and I can only assume that the ankle injury that limited him against the Bears and Steelers was an issue up through the Lions game, even though Mathews wasn’t technically injured. The first four games of the season, Mathews ran 44 times for 146 yards, 3.3 yards per carry. The last two he’s 23-for-116 (5.0 yards per carry), including 56 yards on 14 tough carries Sunday against the Vikings. He also had a 27-yard catch and run against the Vikings, the Eagles’ longest pass play of the day. He has to stop fumbling, but he does seem to have his power and explosion back.
6. The Eagles were particularly impressive in the red zone defensively, holding the Vikings scoreless on three straight red-zone possessions. On the first, McLeod picked off Bradford, on the second Connor Barwin forced a Bradford fumble and on the third the Eagles stuffed the Vikings on downs. Good red-zone defense is good team defense, and that’s what the Eagles got back to playing. The last two weeks it seemed like the defense was operating more as a bunch of individuals running around than as a unit. Sunday, they got back to playing tough, aggressive, physical team defense, and it was fun to watch.
7. Can’t say Halapoulivaati Vaitai played a great game. When your offense only scores 14 points and nets 239 yards of offense, the offensive line isn’t going to be celebrating. But it’s important to note that Vaitai did show progress, and that’s the big thing with him as he tries to hold down right tackle in Lane Johnson’s absence. Vaitai was better Sunday than he was in Washington last week, and as long as he keeps getting better, he’ll keep that job. Big V did commit one penalty, but the Vikings — who led the NFL in sacks per game coming in — had no sacks in this game, so Vaitai was blocking somebody. The Eagles did help him more Sunday than in Washington, but I have a hunch in a few weeks he’ll be giving the Eagles pretty solid football at right tackle.
8. Josh Huff. I’ve been tough on Huff, and through five games he really hadn’t made an impact this year. But his kick return TD, which came at a point where the Eagles couldn’t do anything on offense, was probably the play of the day. With his explosive first step and decisiveness, Huff has a real knack for kickoff returns, and he’s now one of only five Eagles in history with more than one kick return TD in his career. Huff also led the Eagles with four catches for 39 yards on a day when the passing game never really got going. These sort of days have been rare for Huff, but every once in a while he shows these flashes that make you think there’s something special there.
9. In addition to McLeod, can’t forget Hicks and Graham, who were both beast-like Sunday. Hicks, who really seemed to struggle to get off blocks the last couple weeks, was very effective, with 10 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and two pass defenses. Graham had his fourth sack in six games, plus four quarterback hurries, numerous hits on Bradford and a forced fumble. Game balls to both those guys.
10. Finally, I don’t want to hear anybody talk about how this was an ugly game. The Eagles righted the ship and won a must-win game against an undefeated team, and that’s not an easy thing to do. I look up at the scoreboard and see Eagles 21, Vikings 10, and I look in the standings and see 4-2, and there’s nothing ugly about those numbers.