SEATTLE — Carson Wentz might have fumbled, but Doug Pederson crumbled.
The Philadelphia Eagles lost their first game Sunday since mid-September, as the Seattle Seahawks gave their playoff hopes a big boost with a 24-10 victory. The Eagles’ nine-game win streak evaporated more because of the coaching curiosities of Pederson and less because of the sub-par game from MVP candidate Carson Wentz.
Pederson came out passively in the first half, then failed a strange challenge and passed up another in the second half. Wentz finished with good numbers (348 yards passing, the second-most in his career) after a quiet first half. But he coughed away a crucial fumble before what could have been a game-tying score in the third quarter. He also was picked in the final minutes, trying to rally the Eagles from down two scores.
Still, it’s hard not to notice the game-changing plays that happened when the ball was in Pederson’s hands. Those felt like the more weighty mistakes as the Eagles fell to 10-2.
The head coach mishandled two challenge situations late in the game. The Eagles lost a challenge on a third-down pass play to Torrey Smith on a fourth down they were prepared to go for — and ended up getting. That felt wasteful.
“Upstairs felt like the challenge was legit,” Pederson said. “Obviously, we felt like we had the line to gain. Sometimes those are tough. But we felt good based on the information we got upstairs.”
Later, when it was still a one-possession game, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled and pitched the ball six yards downfield to Mike Davis for what was a 23-yard play, all told, on 3rd-and-8. But television replays appeared to show Wilson’s “lateral” actually going forward, which should have been a penalty.
Pederson seemed to suggest he and his advisors were unsure whether to try to challenge it, but having lost the first one, he might have been a bit gunshy.
“Real time it looked fine; it looked legit,” Pederson said. “We didn’t get all the necessary looks. But I trust the guys upstairs. I had already challenged one in the half, lost that, so I didn’t want to risk another timeout.”
The Eagles can point directly to these errors in a game in which they moved the ball but didn’t finish often enough. And why at 10-2, the same record as the Minnesota Vikings, they still have work to do. Tiebreakers are crucial, and both of those teams now have one conference loss.
“The beauty of the thing is it’s still in our control,” Pederson said.
The Seahawks (8-4) controlled the tempo in the first half. They became the first team to score a touchdown on the Eagles in first quarter all season when Wilson found red-zone monster Jimmy Graham for his ninth TD of the season — all coming over the past eight games. In fact, it was the first touchdown the Eagles had allowed in nearly 145 game minutes, dating all the way back to a fourth-quarter score by the Denver Broncos in Week 9.
All season long, the Eagles have taken control of games in the early going — and on the flip side, the Seahawks have been a slow-starting team. The Eagles had outscored opponents 169-75 in first halves (and 78-18 in first quarters) coming into this game, and the Seahawks had been outscored in first halves, 109-101.
This time, the Seahawks turned the script on its head. Wilson was sharp early, and the Seahawks’ defense — even without two key pieces of the Legion of Boom secondary — did its job on Carson Wentz. He finished the first half 9-of-13 passing but for only 45 yards. The Eagles’ long completion before halftime was 10 yards.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson also played things pretty conservatively early on. He twice passed up on going for it in fourth-and-short situations, both of them on the Seattle side of the field, including once in the final minute before halftime with his team down, 10-3.
On the first fourth-down situation Pederson said he didn’t even consider going for it.
“Early in the game, make the decision, punt the football, flip the field,” he said.
On the second, Pederson tried to milk a timeout out of Seattle, which was successful, and he said he was “prepared to go.” But he ended up punting on 4th-and-2 from the Seattle 46 with 18 seconds left. Why exactly?
“I didn’t want to give them a short field potentially with maybe 15 seconds and timeouts and they potentially get three points,” he said.
The Eagles came out firing in the third quarter, with a hot Wentz leading them down the field. He fired two impressive darts — one to Alshon Jeffery after spinning and escaping pressure to get the ball in Seattle territory and another to Jeffery on a skinny post to set up the Eagles with 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
But as Wentz tried to scramble for the score two plays later, the ball was stripped out by Seahawks defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson at the 1-yard line. The ball squirted out of the end zone, and it was Seahawks ball on the touchback.
"I fumbled it,” Wentz said. “It happens. It's tough to do that on the road in close situations like that, especially when you're down there at the 1-yard line. Tough to do that and expect to win."
The Seahawks took advantage of two defensive holds (including one on an incomplete third-down pass) to move the ball downfield, and Wilson hit Doug Baldwin for what looked like a 49-yard touchdown versus the Eagles’ cover-0 blitz on 3rd and 10. Baldwin’s foot dragged out of bounds prior to the end zone, but the Seahawks got in — Wilson to Tyler Lockett — three plays later to make it 17-3, Seahawks.
“They saw it [coming],” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
Added Rodney McLeod on the sniffed-out blitz: “Tonight, [Wilson saw] some of our coverages, got out of [plays], brought guys into protect to give him a little more time. It cost us tonight.”
The Eagles struck back but once again came up short in a fourth-down situation. On 4th-and-3 from the Seattle 25-yard line, Wentz had Kenjon Barner wide open in the flat on a screen pass but had to lob it amid heavy pressure from Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright. The ball went over Barner’s head and the Eagles stalled again.
“Well, 4th-and-3 is a great opportunity,” Pederson said. “We had them sort of back against the wall a bit. We felt we had a great opportunity to get the front and coverage that we expected. We had a man beater called; offense just failed to execute the play.”
With the fourth-down failures, the minus-two turnover differential and seven penalties against them, the Eagles lost in some pretty clear ways.
“Can’t make those mistakes against good football teams on the road and expect to win,” Pederson said.
But his coaching errors also can’t be overlooked.
Nor can a run defense that was not as tight as normal. Davis, who earlier made a pretty 23-yard catch on an off-schedule play in the first half, pulled off two pretty jump cuts on a 22-yard run near the end of the third quarter, plus 17 more on the lateral play. He was a quiet force in the game, rushing 16 times for 64 yards against the Eagles’ top-ranked run defense, after having missed last week’s game with a groin injury. Wilson also added 31 yards on 10 runs.
“We let him slip through too many times,” McLeod said of Wilson.
Wentz, though, kept fighting through his struggles. The MVP candidate was being stalked by the Seahawks’ Quinton Jefferson, and on the dead run Wentz laced an incredible 51-yard rope over the hand of an outstretched Seahawks defender to Nelson Agholor for the Eagles’ longest play from scrimmage. Wentz then found Agholor for a 27-yard touchdown, converting third downs of 13 and 14 yards on the drive, cutting the Seahawks’ lead to 17-10.
But on the drive where he converted the third-down flip to Davis for the improbable first down, Wilson hit J.D. McKissic on a beautiful slant-fade route four a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. It was Wilson’s 15th TD pass in fourth quarters this season, which is tied for most (with Eli Manning, 2011) in any season since 1991.
That put the game out of reach. Wentz’s pick with just over two minutes sealed the deal. Still, it’s hard not to think back to the passivity with which the Eagles played early and wonder if that didn’t hurt them.
“I thought we could have come out with better energy early on,” offensive guard Brandon Brooks said. “It was okay, but it could have been better.”
Perhaps a little more aggressive coaching there could have helped.