EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Eagles have seven players on their roster who have won a Super Bowl in their careers, but only one of them was on the field Sunday for the play that, at last, allowed everyone to exhale. Fourth down-and-goal for the Giants at MetLife Stadium, 48 seconds left, the Eagles leading by five points, and safety Malcolm Jenkins dropped into coverage and saw Eli Manning's pass toward tight end Evan Engram sail out of the end zone, and Jenkins knew, for the moment, that everything was going to be all right.
The Eagles were going to win, 34-29. They were going to assure themselves of a first-round bye in the NFC postseason tournament. They still could clinch home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. And yet …
"That's the part that you celebrate, that you're happy with," said Jenkins, a rookie on the New Orleans Saints' 2009 championship team. "You got a win in your division. You secured a home playoff game, a first-round bye. That's the positive. But as you look at the game and evaluate how you get better, each one of us has to take a hard look at evaluating ourselves, being critical about where we can get better."
That process, that looking inward, will be essential to the Eagles if they're to have any hope of reaching and/or winning the Super Bowl without Carson Wentz, and Sunday's victory, unsightly as it was, should provide them plenty of material. The game itself was a Rorschach test. Look at it closely, and you could see just about whatever you want. (Except for the defense. Don't look at the defense.)
For instance, while the drop-off in the physical possibilities of the quarterback position from Wentz to Nick Foles were obvious – the difference in arm strength and mobility, in particular – Foles still threw for 237 yards and four touchdowns, without a turnover. Of course, the Giants are 2-12 and have the NFL's worst defense, so make of Foles' relative success what you will. He was solid, and you can hope that, as he kicks the rust off over the Eagles' final two regular-season games, he will get even sharper. Or you can wonder how he'll fare in a game or games that matter more, against playoff-level defenses.
"All of them aren't going to be pretty, but if you've got 12 wins, more than likely, you're not going to get 12 very impressive wins," said running back LeGarrette Blount, who was on two Super Bowl-winning teams with the New England Patriots. "Losing is worse, period. You can pass for 500 and rush for 300 and lose. That's not going to compare to passing for 200 and rushing for 60 and winning. Ultimately, that's what you're judged on."
Blount is right, and Sunday's game wasn't reason for panic necessarily. But it wasn't exactly reassuring, either. With Wentz, the Eagles' offense was a powerhouse, and the effect of his presence trickled down to the defense, too. Over one five-game stretch, the Eagles went 5-0, averaged more than 37 points a game, and won by an average margin of more than 23 points. They crushed all comers, but once he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last week, the margin of error he created for the entire team vanished.
That the Eagles allowed the Giants, who entered Sunday with the 31st-ranked offense among the NFL's 32 teams, to score 29 points and move the ball up and down the field at will was hardly comforting, especially on the heels of a poor defensive performance last week against the Los Angeles Rams. For most of the day, the Eagles seemed bent on ending the debate about whether Manning is deserving of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; he riddled them for 434 passing yards and three touchdowns.
"How many points they score? In the whole game? Twenty-nine," defensive end Chris Long said. "They scored 24 on us at home [on Sept. 24]. … I knew they'd show up to play. We didn't play our best game, and that's what happened. The sky isn't falling. It wasn't falling when they scored 24 on us in the third week of the season. We're going to improve. We're going to get better. And we'll be at our best."
Put simply, Long was saying that the Eagles will turn it on when they need to, and … well … we'll see. Truth be told, what won this game for them were their special teams. They blocked three Giants kicks: an extra point, a punt, and a field goal. Those plays were the difference Sunday – those plays, and the Giants' general and seasonlong incompetence.
On their last gasp, that fourth-and-goal play, the Giants lined up on the 11-yard line because they had fouled up seconds earlier – tackle Bobby Hart committed a false-start penalty, pushing the line of scrimmage back from the 6. Yes, the Eagles won, and yes, they are 12-2 and may yet put themselves in the most enviable position an NFL team can find itself for the postseason: win two home games, and you're in the Super Bowl. But this was a wobbly victory over an opponent that should have been overmatched, and nobody, not even the men among them who have been there before, knows yet whether the Eagles' going toe-to-toe with a two-win team was an inevitable occurrence during a long season or an indication of a brief playoff stay yet to come.