With a total of seven games decided by a touchdown or less throughout last season, the Philadelphia Eagles found themselves losing in six of those contests. A combination of bad luck, lack of experience and bad decisions reared its ugly head in most of the game-deciding moments where they had a chance to pull out a win. Success in these types of games will normally be the deciding factor of who makes and misses the playoffs in a given season. Close games normally separate the contenders from the pretenders over the course of a season, showing an ability to come up with a play in the clutch or shut a team down when it is needed the most. Clearly learning from those experiences, the Eagles have already played better in those situations as they have already played in four such games this season while winning three of them. As the Eagles are now finishing close games, the talk has shifted from what could have been to how far can this team go?
What a Difference a Year Makes
In a season where the Eagles started with three consecutive wins, their inability to finish close games was a contributing factor to them losing nine of their next 11 games. During this stretch, they lost all six of the games that they were decided by a touchdown or less. Over the course of a season, most teams hope to, at the very least, break even record-wise in these close games that are determined by one score. With winning their first three games and last two of last season, if they would have been able to split those six close games with three victories in the middle of the season, they would have ended up making the playoffs. Their 7-9 season would have become 10-6 which would have put them in the playoffs over the Detroit Lions, who had the final playoff spot as the sixth seed in the NFC with a 9-7 record.
Obviously, it is impossible to truly know what would have happened had they won a few of those games, as it may have changed the competitiveness and outcome of the last two games played that they won in what was basically a lost season at that point. However, since they lost two of those games that they had the lead in the fourth quarter and went for two in an attempt to win the game against the Baltimore Ravens in week 15 that they would have likely just tied the game in a playoff chase, the idea of winning three of those games is not so far-fetched. Fortunately, the experience from these lost games may have been the biggest contributor to what has become a complete turnaround so far this season in results with quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson having a better understanding of what it takes to win in these situations.
The Addition of Playmakers
The biggest knock against the Eagles as a whole from last season was that they did not have any real threats at wide receiver. They had running backs that could be threats in the passing game and a group of talented tight ends, but they did not have a true go-to receiver when the game was on the line and they needed a huge catch. They also lacked a consistent running game due to a combination of injuries, lack of talent and not having a runner who could pound the ball and pick up a yard when it was truly needed. These holes in their offense were never more noticeable than when the games were in the final minutes and they either needed to run the clock out with a long drive or go the length of the field to score to go ahead at the end of a game. Players like wide receiver Jordan Matthews, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and running back Ryan Mathews did very little to strike fear in opposing defenses and led to little or no openings for teammates since those defenses did not have to focus on those players any more than others.
Fast forward to this season and the playmaking ability of their top two receivers and their starting running back has drastically increased. With the additions of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount, they brought in big name players that the opposition has no choice but to game plan for and worry about when the game is on the line. Also, these three players are veterans that have experience of being the focal point when a game is on the line and performing at a higher level than the players they have replaced. Regardless of what their stats show and if they were the person with the ball in their hands at the end of the three victories in close games that the Eagles have this year, they are no doubt in the defense’s mind when the offense has the ball in any game-deciding situation and that has benefited this year’s version of the Eagles greatly.
Winning in the Trenches
The old adage goes: “games are won in the trenches.” And there may not be another team in the National Football League with more talent in their trenches than the Eagles. While there has been very little change to both the offensive and defensive lines from a year ago, there are two key factors that have assisted in the dominance that both sides have displayed this season. Right tackle Lane Johnson has not been suspended ten games for a performance-enhancing drug violation and the defensive line is in the second year of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz‘s defense.
Over the course of last season and this season, in games that Johnson has played, the Eagles are 10-2, with their only losses coming by one point to the Detroit Lions last season and their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this year. Obviously, one man does not have that huge of an effect in such a team game like football, especially a single offensive lineman, but that does not change what the numbers show. Due to his incredible talent and being such a huge part of the offensive line, it could be understood how Johnson missing games could correlate to losses, especially in close games where his talent may have been needed the most.
After exploding on the scene against two lesser teams during Schwartz’s first two games with the Eagles, the defense stepped up against an extremely talented Pittsburgh Steelers offense in week three, having people take notice that they were the real deal. With a defensive line that could get after the quarterback without added pressure from blitzes, the defense shined in this new system. Unfortunately, the defense could not continue their early success, whether it is due to the offense not running effectively enough or their own inability to put pressure on the quarterback. Despite the disappointment, glimpses of what could have been was seen over the course of last season and with another off-season in this system, the defense has shown over the first six weeks of 2017 what we came to expect after the first three of last year.
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