Here’s what the Philadelphia Eagles need to advance in this year’s playoffs, regardless of opponent or venue or officiating crew or anything else: a monster defense.
Not just a solid defense, which they’ve had for most of the year, but a juggernaut — one that can not only set up scores but score itself, one that could maybe even outscore the offense, which doesn’t seem capable of scoring at all anymore in the wake of Sunday’s abominable 6-0 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys.
As ugly a way as it was for the Cowboys (9-7) to end their season, it was even more ominous for the Eagles (13-3), whose season is really just getting started.
Until Sunday, they hadn’t been shut out since the final game of the 2009 regular season. That was against the Cowboys as well.
The Eagles were then bounced out of the playoffs the following week by the same team.
While that can’t happen this year because the Eagles have secured the top seed in the NFC, they are headed for a certain one-and-done without a defense that can match the most dominant groups of all time.
We’re talking the 2015 Denver Broncos, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 1991 Eagles. Those kinds of defenses.
And even that might not be enough.
Quarterback issues: Consider that the 1991 defense was the greatest in the modern history of the Eagles. Yet the team couldn’t make the playoffs.
Why? Because it lost its quarterback, Randall Cunningham, on opening day.
At his best, Cunningham never did for his team what Carson Wentz already did for this one before being felled by a torn ACL in early December.
Now that Wentz is gone and the offense is in the hands of Nick Foles and backup Nate Sudfeld, who on Sunday combined to go 23-for-34 for 173 yards with an interception and a 67.4 passer rating, there is no evidence to suggest the Eagles can win without the defense rising to a level Philadelphia hasn’t witnessed in more than a quarter century.
But now here comes the other part: There is evidence to suggest that could very well happen.
Short-handed defense still excels: Coach Doug Pederson sees it too. That could be why he didn’t think twice about deactivating five defensive starters and an important rotational piece, rookie defensive end Derek Barnett, for Sunday’s game with minor dings that wouldn’t have prevented them from playing if it meant something, then going to as many backups as possible shortly after it began.
With all its top players watching and resting from the sideline, the defense turned in a second straight stifling performance — this time against an offense with some bite.
Even had the Cowboys finished with the 10 points they deserved after missing an extra point and a field goal, the game was a source of pride for the Eagles, especially because it is the only thing they can cling to heading to the playoffs.
“I think it was great for our young defensive players to play against their starters offensively,” Pederson said. “Really, it’s fun for our guys. And as coaches we get to see exactly what we have in some of our younger personnel. To go against a really good quarterback and a great running back and the offensive line that they have, I thought our guys did a really nice job holding up and did an outstanding job, really, against them.”
This, after limiting the Oakland Raiders to 10 points while forcing five turnovers the week before.
Home-field edge key: Fact is, with the help of 70,000 or so fans each game, this defense is a different unit at home, where the Eagles are guaranteed to remain throughout the NFC playoffs, than on the road.
In their last three games at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles allowed a total of 19 points. The most they’ve allowed in any home game is 24. Their total for the season is 107, which comes out to 13.4 points per game in their house.
Granted, none of them came against playoff teams. On the other hand, without the offense helping them whatsoever in these last two games, they still raised their level to the point where they had chances to win both.
Eagles not good enough to win Super Bowl: This Eagles team is not going to win the Super Bowl. That should be obvious to all by now. But it’s not unreasonable to project them getting there, which would be a tremendous achievement in light of everything they’ve been forced to overcome.
“We want to carry the team,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “We want to put the team on our backs. That’s always been our mentality on defense.”
Added defensive tackle Fletcher Cox: “I think the defense has carried this team all year.”
Cox paused for a second as he realized the potential complication of that statement, then continued.
“We’re a team. That’s the main thing. I don’t think just one group carries this.”
That amendment was true of the team before Wentz went down.
Now the Eagles will only go as far as their defense can take them.