EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Eagles, for the first time this season, looked like their 2017 selves Thursday night. They weren't nearly perfect, but they led comfortably throughout what would eventually become a 34-13 pasting of the New York Giants. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles are baaaaaacccckkk. OK, let's not get ahead ourselves. One win doesn't erase the previous five weeks. The Eagles still have issues and still have an increasing number of injuries (more on that later). But it had to feel good to get ahead early, expand the lead, and put an opponent away with rather ease.
It wasn't simple, of course. The Eagles were playing on three days' rest, they had to travel up the Jersey Turnpike, and the Giants have enough firepower to have produced the opposite result. But they caught a squad that's reeling with an aging, ineffective quarterback. Jim Schwartz's defense deserves credit for getting after Eli Manning, but the 37-year-old quarterback is all but done. The Giants will win some more games, and Manning might have some decent outings on paper, but he's no longer capable of willing his team to victory. He doesn't trust his arm to throw downfield and doesn't have the necessary athleticism to extend plays in the pocket behind a leaky offensive line.
The 3-3 Eagles don't have to worry about the Giants in the division. The Redskins (2-2) and Cowboys (2-3) are still clearly in the NFC East picture, but when the Eagles play as they did Thursday, with an elite quarterback firing on all cylinders, a suffocating defense with a ferocious pass rush and special teams that are mistake-free, there are few teams that can keep up.
2. Injuries will force the Eagles to continue to mix and match. The Eagles have seven players on injured reserve, most notably running back Jay Ajayi, safety Rodney McLeod, tight end Richard Rodgers and receivers Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins. The Eagles can still bring two players off IR. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and safety Chris Maragos are eligible to come off non-football injury and physically unable to perform lists, respectively, next week, but neither appears close to being cleared.
Running back Darren Sproles (hamstring), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (calf), safety Corey Graham (hamstring), and linebacker Nate Gerry (ankle) were sidelined Thursday and, in Sproles' and Ngata's cases, have been for multiple weeks. Tackle Lane Johnson (high ankle sprain), tackle Jason Peters (quadriceps) and cornerback Sidney Jones (ankle) played through injuries, but each left early. Johnson was pulled with the game in hand. Peters suffered a biceps injury. And Jones left with a hamstring strain.
The Eagles were forced to shuffle the deck. On defense, they took Avonte Maddox from free safety, where he had never played until a few weeks ago, and moved him into the slot in nickel personnel. Rasul Douglas, who had never previously played safety, as well, took Maddox's spot in center field. When Peters left, Halapoulivaati Vaitai took his spot at left tackle, as he's done the last two years. But when the Eagles took a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Johnson was given the rest of the night off, and recently benched Stefen Wisniewski returned to left guard and Isaac Seumalo kicked out to right tackle.
Peters said that he would be OK, but even if he's cleared to play next weekend against the Panthers, his health should hang over the Eagles the rest of the season. Johnson deserves praise for playing through pain. A high ankle sprain typically takes four weeks to recover from, but he might not be afforded that amount of rest. The Eagles get a mini-bye this weekend, but they must figure out if they want to bring in another safety with Jones hobbled, and they must start to get realistic about Peters' sustainability.
3. Getting ahead early solves a lot of play-calling issues. Doug Pederson received some blame for his run-pass ratio in recent weeks. It's a default criticism from a certain segment. But as I wrote Thursday, the Eagles' 36-64 run-pass imbalance was more a symptom than a cause of the team's struggles on offense. Pederson wants balance because it would mean that he got ahead and could run out the clock in the second half.
The Eagles jumped on the Giants early. Linebacker Jordan Hicks deflected an errant Manning pass, on the second play from scrimmage, to fellow linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Carson Wentz converted the turnover into six points three plays later when he found Alshon Jeffery in the end zone. The Giants trimmed the lead to 7-3, but the Eagles struck back with another first-quarter touchdown and never looked back. They had doubled their previous total first-quarter output in the first five games and used the cushion to dig deep into the playbook.
Overall, Pederson had Wentz drop to throw 39 times, but he called 28 runs for a 42-58 run-pass ratio. The Eagles, it should also be noted, held a five-minute advantage in time of possession.
4. Carson Wentz is baaaaaacccckkk. I thought he was close to old self in his debut and marginally improved over the next two games. But he had a performance against the Giants that was on par with anything he did in 2017. Wentz completed 26 of 36 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. He had thrown for 228 yards after the Eagles' first drive of the third quarter and could have further padded his numbers, but it wasn't necessary.
I thought Wentz was in control throughout the night. His across-the-body touchdown toss to Jeffery was dangerous. Quarterbacks are told to never make that kind of throw late in a down. But most quarterbacks aren't like Wentz. His third-down numbers were ridiculous: 14-for-15 for 168 yards and two touchdowns with a near-perfect passer rating of 152.9. Wentz got bailed out by receiver Nelson Agholor on a first-quarter heave that was altered when the quarterback was hit at the line. But luck was hardly at play in his 25 other completions.
Wentz is completing 68.4 percent of his passes through four games. It's a small sample, but his accuracy numbers are dramatically up from last season (60.2). Having a higher completion percentage hasn't come at the expense of his yards per pass attempt (7.5 vs. last season's 7.5) or his touchdown-to-interception ratio (8-1 vs. last season's 4.7-1). Wentz is back, and he will be better than ever.
5. Alshon Jeffery brings a dynamic and attitude. The Eagles receiver is soft-spoken, but he carries himself in a way that says, "I'm the man." It carries over to his teammates. Asked for the message of confidence that he conveys to the rest of the team, Jeffery said, "I just always tell them, 'Ain't nobody [messing] with us.' "
His words would mean little if he didn't back it up on the field. Jeffery looked off at times last season, but only after did we learn that he was playing through a torn rotator cuff. He's played only three games this season, but he looks healthier and more explosive. Jeffery has 18 catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns. He has six touchdowns over his last six games dating to the 2017 postseason.
But the number most indicative of his improvement is 62.1 – the percentage of targets he's catching. Last season, he caught only 47.5 percent, the second lowest among receivers. Wentz and Jeffery are developing chemistry, but the latter is also seeing passes, such as screens, that he didn't see much of last season because the Eagles wanted him to avoid contact. He said his second touchdown, a nifty 1-yard screen, was lifted from the Patriots.
6. The offensive line struggled, but got the job done. The injuries up front have had little to do with the number of sacks (12) and hits (25) Wentz endured in the previous three games. Peters has been less than 100 percent, but he has been inconsistent since Game 1. Johnson suffered his ankle sprain near the end of the Vikings game.
Both tackles had issues early against the Giants, particularly Peters. He allowed a few pressures by linebacker Olivier Vernon and was called for holding. He leads the Eagles with six penalties. But the protection improved after the first quarter. A review of the game film will provide more detail. The Eagles fixed something. Wentz was sacked only once – in the third quarter – and hit five times.
7. The defensive line dominated. Manning was a sitting duck for most of the night. He was sacked four times and hit 13 times. He had to throw the ball away to avoid further contact on other plays. The Eagles defensive line had played well in the first five games. Only two other teams had more pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. But the secondary wasn't holding up in certain circumstances and the ball was coming out quickly. Once the Eagles got ahead on the Giants, Manning was forced to drop back and the linemen could pin their ears back.
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes from the Eagles-Giants game
Fletcher Cox notched his team-high fourth sack, added another tackle for loss, and had three quarterback hits. The defensive tackle said he was gunning for defensive player of the year at the start of the offseason, and so far, he's in the running. Michael Bennett's first-quarter sack was huge. The Giants had trimmed the score to 7-3 and got the ball back on their own 9-yard line. But on first down, Bennett smoked left tackle Nate Solder and stripped-sacked Manning. The Giants recovered on the 1-yard line, but they were well behind the sticks and eventually punted. Bennett was flagged for what appeared to be another bogus roughing-the-passer penalty, but he has really brought the thunder over the last three games.
8. The cornerbacks rebounded. Ronald Darby might have had his best game of the season. This was the Darby we saw during training camp. He led the Eagles with four pass breakups. Darby returned to the scene of maybe his worst game last season and helped keep Odell Beckham Jr. and company in check. The explosive, ill-tempered receiver caught only six of 10 targets for 44 yards.
Even when Jones left, new Giants coach Pat Shurmur couldn't find a way to exploit the Eagles deep. Receiver Cody Latimer did beat cornerback Jalen Mills for a 39-yard grab, but that was about all that Mills allowed. He finished with nine tackles and two pass breakups and was once again stellar in the red zone. The Giants were 0-for-3 in the red zone. The Eagles have allowed just eight red-zone touchdowns on 23 possessions (34.8 pct.).
9. Running back-by-committee worked, for now. With the news of Ajayi's season-ending knee injury, many wanted the Eagles to go out and trade for a running back such as Le'Veon Bell or LeSean McCoy. While both make sense in some regard, I'm not sure the position is a priority for the Eagles, at least compared to receiver, safety or defensive tackle.
The Eagles' best game on the ground came against the Colts and without Ajayi. Corey Clement was still nursing a quad injury Thursday and was on a pitch count, but he got the job done along with Wendell Smallwood. Their combined rushing numbers (28 carries for 90 yards) weren't eye-popping, but they were effective enough. The low per-carry average in yards (3.2) was diluted by obvious, late-game rushes. I was little surprised that rookie Josh Adams didn't get a carry, but he wasn't needed and with Sproles close to a return, he might not be called upon.