The NFL isn’t pretty, nor is it predictable. Giants fall and underdogs rise each and every week. There’s an old adage when it comes to professional football however: “defense wins championships”. The Eagles have ticked every box this season. Securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs and earning a much-deserved first round bye. Without Carson Wentz, the team will be reliant on their dominant defense more than ever. What we saw from one of the league’s grittiest teams on Monday Night was the sort of play that will hold that adage true.
The offense completed a mere 7% of third downs on Monday night. With just 11 yards in the second half until the two minute warning and three fumbles that presented tremendous field position for the Raiders, it fell onto the army of Jim Schwartz to hold strong and keep the team in the matchup, just as their offense had to do for them one week ago.
They did just that. Five second half turnovers which included a pair of game-changing interceptions propelled the Eagles back into a matchup that was anything but competent offensively.
“It was a defensive game.” Said the man who led the Eagles in tackles in Christmas Day’s win, Nigel Bradham. “You have these types of games all throughout the year. Some games are going to be offensive games, some games are going to be special teams, some games are defense, and some games are all three combined. This was one of the ones where it was a defensive game. We had two great defenses battling today on the field. I felt like that showed and it was just a defensive game.”
It felt like offensively, everything was going wrong for the Eagles. After being forced into a 4th & 19 inside their own 20, the Eagles punted to Oakland. It took just three plays for Patrick Robinson to pick off a pass intended for Seth Roberts to amass his fourth interception of the year, swinging momentum back into favor of an Eagles offense that was beginning to dry up. Two plays later, Jay Ajayi fumbled. Just like that, the Eagles defense was back on the field. But just like the season has suggested, nothing keeps this team chained down.
Vinny Curry forced a Marshawn Lynch fumble and the Eagles recovered the ball within field goal range, prompting smart-playcalling to tie things up at 10-10. It didn’t matter where the Raiders started from, the Eagles simply would not break.
“You want to dominate every game, but let’s be realistic, it is the NFL and you are going to go up against some top offenses and you going to have some weeks where you defense is not going to have the same numbers as they normally are.” A humbled, yet hungry Bradham explained in the locker room after the win. “That might happen two or three times a year out of 16 games, but that does not mean you have a bad defense. I just think we had a couple games where we played some high-powered offenses and we did not do our best, but we ended up bouncing back.”
Bouncing back would be an understatement. There would be one more forced fumble and that crucial Ronald Darby interception to come…and that’s what makes this team so special. Resiliency. Jalen Mills gave up a touchdown to Amari Cooper, showing the same weakness he did against the Giants, but would end up with a pair of pivotal pass defenses later on. A one-play mentality and a true sense of camaraderie is what has pushed this defense so far.
“We’ve been getting turnovers at critical times and then we aren’t on the sidelines complaining or bad mouthing each other.” Brandon Graham explained on Christmas Day, explaining just how selfless and team-focused this unit really is. “Like the first thing I wanted to do when I went to [CB] Jalen [Mills] was [say] ‘hey man, let’s make up for it.’ He made up for it on that one sprint. We held them to three points. I trust my guys out there and they trust me. All we have to do is do our job – a lot better.”
Not every game is going to be pretty, not every game will be dominant. But the heart and will to win is always going to be present. Chris Long personified that mantra with his most explosive game as an Eagle so far. When asked about the play of his stellar defense that held Oakland to just 137 passing yards and 137 rushing yards, his response was not in the least surprising.
“Sometimes you have to win games like that.” The selfless veteran explained. “At the end of the day, a couple of weeks back, we went to L.A. and didn’t play our best game. We let up about 35 points on defense, and the offense bailed us out. At the end of the day, we’re a team. We stick up for each other and stand up for each other. We knew we had to step up a little bit, and we did that.”
This isn’t an Eagles team that cares about statistical dominance or where they rank in analytical outlooks. It’s a team built on the belief and confidence in one another, with a unified motor that never dies and a hunger to be the very best in the league. That hunger may have pushed them to that benchmark…and the ceiling is only getting higher.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports