The first sign things would be different Sunday came six minutes in. The Eagles opened their second drive with two penalties (that part wasn’t different), but then, on 1st-and-20, QB Sam Bradford turned and handed the ball to . . . Kenjon Barner. And the little guy from Oregon – who’d had one first-quarter carry all year – juked his way for 19 yards.
All season long, Chip Kelly has been fairly criticized for sticking with things that didn’t work -- Exhibit A, of course, being DeMarco Murray. But on this day in New England, Coach Intransigence found his flexibility, at least for one day. The man who wouldn’t change anything through a horrid three-game streak changed a lot.
So Barner and Darren Sproles combined for 24 carries and 105 yards, to Murray’s 8-for-24. So Kelly started rolling Bradford out of the pocket on key downs to buy time and gain space. The result: Critical third-down conversions for an offense that had ranked 29th in the NFL in that stat.
On defense, Vinny Curry emerged from mothballs to provide pressure, and Tom Brady was sacked four times. Malcolm Jenkins moved back to the slot after three games away, and gathered a 99-yard interception for a touchdown.
There was more. Players vented last week that the Eagles lacked a sense of unity and that Kelly didn’t hold anyone accountable. While the coach dismissed the complaints, he had to hear the sentiment.
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So on Saturday night, he gathered the boys at the team hotel and offered positive reinforcement. They sat in a darkened room and watched a video featuring all 53 of them making an impact play in a prior game. It’s a gambit some might dismiss as “Harry High School.” But you can imagine the Eagles cheering for each other for the first time in a while.
They inhaled that emotion, and beat New England the next day. There will be lots of talk this week of how Tom Brady had no weapons, and how Bill Belichick killed his own team with an ill-timed onside kick, up 14-0. Some of that may have merit. But don’t ignore that the Pats won their last 94 at home when they put up an eight-point lead.
What the Eagles accomplished Sunday with offense, defense and – especially – special teams was outstanding.
Whether any of this carries over remains to be seen. The Eagles remain a flawed team, and Kelly must coach like Vince Lombardi to overcome some of the damage he created as general manager.
Three wins in the final four games will almost certainly win this putrid NFC East. The Eagles will likely be favored in three – although we’ve seen how little that means this season.
Don’t know about you, but I’d rather watch them make the playoffs at .500 than spend Christmas week debating who they’ll draft and when the coach gets fired. It’s anything but certain that will happen, but at least now they’ve created the opportunity.