When the Eagles trotted onto Soldier Field two weeks ago, they were a 12-1 team confident about the present and loving the future.
Jalen Hurts was the starting quarterback on that sunny and frigid Dec. 18, surely headed to winning the league’s MVP award. At right tackle was Pro Bowler Lane Johnson, who hadn’t allowed a sack or even a quarterback hit in forever.
At nickel back was Avonte Maddox, in his second game back from a hamstring injury, solidifying the pass defense.
The Eagles led the league in fewest man-games lost. They had enjoyed remarkable good health through 13 games.
They led the NFL in turnover differential. Their offseason acquisitions revitalized the team and solidified the defense.
All was good in Eagles land. Plane tickets to Phoenix weren’t being purchased, yet, but fans certainly were checking the prices. The Super Bowl wasn’t some impossible dream saved for elite teams.
The Eagles were elite.
Two skinny weeks later, the landscape looks much different and not in a good way.
When the Eagles are greeted with rousing cheers Sunday afternoon before they play the Saints, they will go into a game facing their season’s greatest adversity.
Whether Hurts plays or not.
If Hurts plays, is there a risk of more injury? Or less effective play?
Johnson and Maddox are significant players and likely sidelined through the regular season. Without Johnson, how will the offensive line hold up?
Without Johnson, they might feel the wrath of Saints’ pass-rushers. Since Eagles’ sacks often halt an opponent’s offense, this might be unwanted payback.
What will the Eagles’ secondary look like? C.J. Gardner-Johnson (lacerated kidney) is eligible to return from injured reserve but coach Nick Sirianni didn’t sound optimistic the safety will play against the Saints.
- “First of all, we have to see how everything is healing in there,” Sirianni said. “It will always be about where he is, because that’s something you don’t mess around with. So, when he’s healthy, he’ll go. We’ll find out more as he gets some of these tests done.
- “Just because he’s eligible to return doesn’t mean he will, even though I know he’ll want to. Again, all the guys will want to, so we’ll see.”
So at nickel back and safety, the Eagles would have a combination of rookie Reed Blankenship, Josiah Scott and K’Von Wallace to start alongside strong safety Marcus Epps. Definitely a step down from Gardner-Johnson and Maddox. Without Maddox on the field Saturday, the Eagles gave up a traumatic third-and-30 to Dallas in the fourth quarter
More distress: The Eagles have seven turnovers in the last two games. They squeezed out a win against Chicago but they can’t expect to win games turning over the ball that frequently.
Sirianni expressed confidence about his team leaders pulling the team through this rough patch.
- “If I felt we had a bunch of guys that didn’t love football or weren’t tough or didn’t have the right mental makeup, those are really hard to navigate as a coach,” Sirianni said. “It is. It’s really hard.
- “But when [we] have a group of guys that we have and the leaders we have with Lane Johnson and Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce and Jake Elliott and Jalen, and Fletch [Fletcher Cox] and Slay [Darius Slay], with those captains.
- “Then even the guys on our leadership council and the guys beyond that. These guys, they aren’t going to be fazed by that. We’re going to move on and correct our mistakes and move on.”
Every NFL team deals with hardship. But key injuries have hit the Eagles as the season’s most important games are on the horizon.
- “One of the earliest talks that we had in training camp is how — adversity is coming,” Sirianni said.
- “I don’t know when it is, in what direction it will come. Could be in your personal life, could be in your football life, could be anything. How are we going to handle that? …
- “When you have to go through those things in life and go through those things in football, when you have the leaders that we have it makes those roads a little bit easier to navigate.”
GOALS TO GO
The Eagles have two games remaining, both at home. They need to win one to take the NFC East title and grab home-field for the playoffs. To get there, they have to shake off their most devastating loss of the season against their most bitter rival.
Sirianni said he watched the Dallas game “about eight times” on Christmas Day, looking for answers.
- “Are we still mad about our loss? Absolutely we are,” Sirianni said about the 40-34 loss.
- “Sometimes that fuels you to dig a little bit deeper so you don’t let each other down.
- “That’s where we are right now. We are going to dig deeper, find more answers. We feel like we’re obviously on that track now of finding more answers.”
NFL teams that are 13-2 need a fair share of luck to get there. Now faced with obstacles, where they go next might have less to do with luck than execution.
A little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.