CARSON, Calif. — The Eagles bested the Chargers, 26-24, at their home away from home, the StubHub Center, on Sunday. Here's what we learned:
- The Eagles aren't a fluke. I don't think we know quite yet how good this team can be. The Eagles have started 3-1 before only to implode or tail off in the final three quarters of the season. But this group is better than last year's, I believe, because it has shown a resiliency and an ability to win tight games. The Eagles went 1-6 in games decided by one touchdown or less in 2016. They've won their last two by a combined five points. This week's game wasn't as dramatic as the last-second win over the Giants, but there were nail-biting moments down the stretch as Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense wouldn't relent. The Eagles never trailed, but they bounced back each time San Diego — er, Los Angeles — trimmed their lead to two points in the fourth quarter. They rebounded with a long touchdown drive after the Chargers had whittled their margin to 19-17 with a little less than 14 minutes left. And they drained the clock completely with a workmanlike "four-minute" offense drive after a Rivers-to-Hunter Henry touchdown pass with 6 minutes and 44 seconds to go. No matter what happens Monday night with the 2-1 Redskins and Chiefs, the Eagles stand atop the NFC East at the quarter pole. Are they without faults? Not by any means. But that goes for every team in the NFL. The league has great parity, and this year it seems as if more than half the teams could be playoff-worthy. It's still early, but the Eagles are in the conversation, and if they win more close ones than they lose, they should remain there.
- Doug Pederson called his best game of the season. The Eagles coach was harshly criticized for his decision to gamble on fourth and 8 last week. I wasn't a fan of Pederson's decision, but I think the second-guessing was overdone, especially considering that the Eagles won and he had called an otherwise solid game. But he outdid himself Sunday in terms of his offensive play-calling. There were balance (36 runs to 38 passes), variety through the air (vertical plays, screens, play actions, etc.), a mixture on the ground (LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement each had at least 10 carries) and a deftly called final series that stuck a fork in the Chargers. If there was one decision to nitpick, it was Pederson's decision to not go for it on fourth and 1 from the Eagles' own 49 just before halftime. He had the offense out on the field to try to get the Chargers defense to jump, but it didn't and the Eagles called a timeout and punted instead. I would have probably gone for it. The interior of the o-line and quarterback Carson Wentz have done a solid job on short-yardage runs. The Eagles would later convert a fourth and 1 in the third quarter. A week ago, Pederson rolled the dice on fourth and 8 from an opponent's 43. It was only a 6-yard difference in field position and the Eagles had seven fewer yards to go. "Different game, different circumstance," Pederson said. "It was right before the half and just a decision to punt, bottom line." Donnie Jones' punt pinned the Chargers on their own 13, but they went 77 yards and kicked a field goal for a 16-10 halftime deficit.
- The defense is running out of gas. Jim Schwartz's unit has allowed at least 14 points in each of the last three fourth quarters. All told, it has surrendered 40 total points in the first three quarters and 52 in the fourth. The Eagles have survived those meltdowns, but it's only a matter of time before they catch up to a team. I'm not sure if there's one single reason that the defense is wilting. Injuries might be catching up to the group, though. The Eagles got back Jordan Hicks (ankle) and Rodney McLeod (hamstring), but Fletcher Cox (calf) was out and cornerback Ronald Darby (ankle) remained sidelined. Beau Allen (one sack, two tackles for loss) filled in admirably for Cox, but rookie Rasul Douglas finally cracked in place of Darby. Rivers is a good quarterback and he has weapons – receiver Keenan Allen is especially dangerous. But Schwartz's defense can't continue to give up big plays. The Chargers had six plays of more than 20 yards. (The Eagles had five.)
- The offensive line is getting into a rhythm. And it just so happens to correspond with the Eagles' success on the ground. O-lines like to run-block more than pass-protect. It is nearly universal. The linemen get to be more physical, individual linemen don't get exposed as much as they do in the passing game, and when the run game starts rolling downhill, the momentum can sometimes feel unstoppable. The Eagles rushed for 214 yards, with 200 coming from the running backs. Blount (16 carries for 136 yards) was awesome. His 68-yard rumble in the fourth was a memory maker. I wrote about his day in my column for the newspaper. He had open lanes to run through. Center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks are run-blocking as well as ever. Tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson are pushing bodies and opening space. And the left-guard rotation of Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack has been a significant upgrade over Isaac Seumalo. Wisniewski has been more consistent and, I would argue, should play every snap. The Eagles went to him increasingly as the game wore on. But Warmack has been decent enough to earn time. And how about the job Peters and Johnson did on Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram? The Chargers ends entered the game with a combined eight sacks, but were shut out Sunday.
- Jake Elliott is kicking his way onto the long-term roster. The rookie kicker was perfect on Sunday. Yes, perfect. He nailed all four of his field goal attempts and both extra points, and all seven of his kickoffs were for touchbacks. Elliott's field goals weren't chip shots, either. He hit from 45, 40, 53 and 47 yards, and each was pivotal. The little guy kicks with great force, and even his 50-plus boots have a no-doubt-about-it look. I don't want to get ahead of myself here. Elliott was maybe one more missed kick from getting released last week. But after he nailed a game-tying 46-yarder, he has been hot, of course, first nailing the 61-yard winner against the Giants. Should Caleb Sturgis, who is still recovering from a hip injury, be worried about his job? I would.
- Carson Wentz is maturing. When a performance such as the one Wentz had Sunday is the fourth- or fifth-most-talked about story, it's a sign that the young quarterback is reaching a point at which his steadiness is expected. He completed 17 of 31 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown and didn't have a turnover for the second straight week. Wentz's struggles with the deep ball through the first three games were chronicled in detail – and justifiably so – but he was accurate on most of his tosses of more than 20 yards against the Chargers. He dropped a 36-yard dime to Nelson Agholor on the opening drive that led to a touchdown. He floated a strike to tight end Zach Ertz for 38 yards down the seam. And if Torrey Smith hadn't bricked a downfield throw, Wentz would have likely had another 30-plus-yard completion. With the run game clicking, he didn't have to carry the offense on his shoulders for the second straight week. He's already good, and likely someday to be great, but there is little reason to ride him this early in his career. Wentz is still prone to holding the ball too long and to throwing the occasional awkward short pass, but he's off to a strong start in Year 2 and should only improve.
- Zach Ertz has become Mr. Reliable. OK, so maybe his fourth-quarter fumble last week wasn't the sort of play that trustworthy tight ends make. But Ertz has otherwise been consistent. He led the Eagles again with five catches for 81 yards and has a team-high 26 catches for 326 yards through four games. I won't give the exact numbers on how many catches and yards that projects to over a 16-game season – because it's far too early to look that much ahead – but he's on pace to shatter his career bests. Ertz also might have had one of his better blocking games. His block on Blount's 68-yard run took out two Chargers.
- Rasul Douglas is human. The rookie cornerback looked like a seasoned pro in his first two games. It seemed too good to be true, and that's because it was. It was only a matter of time before Douglas was going to get exposed. Does his shaky outing against the Chargers mean he isn't going to bounce back next week or eventually be a starting-caliber defender? No. Every cornerback in this league has games such as the one Douglas had Sunday, and it's not as if it was at a Seumalo level. But he took his lumps. He got beaten inside by receiver Tyrell Williams for a 75-yard touchdown catch. Douglas might have been looking for inside help, and safety Rodney McLeod might have bitten the cheese on play action, but Williams was still his man and he took a poor angle in coverage. Allen later got Douglas to bite on a double move when he faked an inside slant. Douglas could have limited the damage when he caught Allen, but he tried to tackle high and the receiver went on to cover 49 total yards. The corner was also later called for pass interference. Douglas will learn from his mistakes, but he was taken to school Sunday.
- Mychal Kendricks might have earned the right to supplant Nigel Bradham. Bradham hasn't been brutal this season. He might miss a play only to redeem himself a play or few plays later. But he has missed more than a handful of open-field tackles – two more Sunday – and continues to have trouble covering backs out of the backfield. Kendricks, who has gotten off to a strong start, recently voiced his frustration with having to come off the field in the nickel package. I don't know if he would be exposed the more he played, but I'm starting to see Kendricks' argument. Both linebackers recorded four tackles against the Chargers.