Never did clinching a division title feel this empty. One moment Carson Wentz slings his 33rd TD of the year to break the franchise record, and minutes later, Fox’s Erin Andrews whispers that Eagles trainers were “shaking their heads” after jiggling Wentz’s left knee in the locker room.
Even as Nick Foles and the defense persevered in Sunday’s thrilling 43-35 win over the Rams, it seemed hollow. We lay in bed Sunday night wondering – again – why our team is cursed. The agony of victory.
Self-pity is acceptable under the circumstances. For the fans. Not for the franchise. The Eagles, from Doug Pederson down, reached 11-2 by showing character and resolve and creativity. They’re not lowering their Super Bowl expectations.
Realistically, no one will say the odds didn’t just get a lot slimmer. Wentz was the pre-emptive MVP of the league, the superstar who drew comparisons Sunday to Big Ben and John Elway.
But the show must go on. The Super Bowl will still be played on Feb. 4. And for the Eagles to get there without Wentz, here’s what has to happen:
Jay Ajayi has to become the key to the offense. The Eagles run game has dominated all season, with contributions from LeGarrette Blount (684 yards) and Corey Clement (290 yards, 6 total TDs). But Ajayi has talent and versatility that made him the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher in 2016. The Eagles picked him up for a measly 4th-round pick at the trade deadline with an eye toward the future. Well, the future is now. Give him 20 carries a game.
Nick Foles has to stand tall. Our old friend, Nicky Six, shook off rust and completed a huge pass to Nelson Agholor with Sunday’s game on the line. Foles is among the NFL’s top backup QBs – which, of course, is far from being among the top overall QBs.
Look, he’ll never again be 27 TD-2 INT Nick Foles. But his teammates respect and believe in him. Now it’s on Pederson and Frank Reich to cobble an offense accentuating Foles’ skills without exposing his weaknesses.
Essentially, he has to be Jeff Hostetler. You may not remember the mustachioed NY Giants backup, who stepped in for an injured Phil Simms in 1990. Hostetler won the Super Bowl by throwing no zero interceptions in three post-season games. Of course, Hostetler had the benefit of an outstanding Giants defense, which brings us to. . .
The defense must be flawless. The talented Rams put up 35 Sunday, but the Eagles shut them down at the end, twice stuffing Todd Gurley for critical losses.
We’ve seen this group stifle the run, terrorize QBs and force an NFC-best 22 turnovers this season. As they gear toward the playoffs, they need to turn it up even more.
The three remaining opponents (Giants, Cowboys, Raiders) have a combined 15-24 record, which allows for a great shot at post-season home-field advantage, even without Wentz. That’s more critical than ever.
If the 2017 Eagles have shown anything, it’s resilience. They’ve won after losing Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks, Ron Darby (for eight games) and Jason Peters.
None of those players means as much as Wentz. I won’t lie and tell you his injury didn’t crush my heart. It turns the Super Bowl quest into a trek up Mount Everest. But, hey, the Eagles mantra has been, “Next man up.”
The fans owe it to the team to hang with that.